5 Ways We Can Support Bees
As key pollinators, bees are essential to life on Earth. But bees – wild and domestic, are under threat. Many factors, from habitat loss to pesticide use have taken their toll on bee populations, spelling trouble not just for the bees, but for the rest of the planet too. So, how can we help? Here are 5 simple but high impact ways we can support bees, wherever we live.
We owe a lot to bees. Not only do we have them to thank for pollinating a huge proportion of the world’s food crops, but they are also essential to the survival of many other plants and wildlife in nearly every terrestrial ecosystem on Earth.1
Yet despite their importance, bees are facing a crisis. Huge declines in bee numbers have been witnessed in Europe and the US and are now occurring in Asia, Central and South America and Africa. Many factors are believed to contribute to this decline – habitat loss, monoculture farming, drought, pesticides, air pollution, global warming, parasites – the list goes on.2 What’s become clear over recent years, however, is that humans are largely responsible for two of the leading causes: pesticides and habitat loss. While this is cause for concern, it may also light a path out of this mess: if we can provide enough natural, pesticide-free habitat for native bees, maybe we can reverse some of the tragic losses we’re seeing. So, whether you have a garden or a window ledge, roll up your sleeves: here are 5 simple ways we can give back to bees.
1. Go native
Bees are running out of food. Since the 1930s, England alone has seen the disappearance of 97% of its flower-rich meadows to make way for property and agricultural landscapes – removing a vital food source for native bees.3 It goes without saying then, that one of the best ways we can support local pollinators is by reintroducing native plant species to our gardens, balconies and window boxes.
Native plant species are those that grow naturally in your region and are therefore perfectly adapted to your area’s climate and surrounding biodiversity. Native plants and their personal pollinators have often evolved in tandem, so by planting native species you are providing foundational food sources for local pollinators. While it varies from region to region, flowering herbs like rosemary, lavender, milkweed, sage and thyme are great for pollinators, as are daisy-shaped flowers like asters, echinacea and sunflowers. However, not all flowers are created equal – some bees have specific eating habits and are active in different seasons. To ensure you’re catering to a variety of bee species and not just some of them, try to plant native species that flower at different times of the year and which grow in a variety of shapes, colours and heights.
While native plants are a sure way of supporting pollinators, don’t shy away from planting a few non-native varieties, too. Including a proportion of more exotic flowering species may provide flowers when native plants are no longer in bloom. A general rule of thumb: the more variety you plant, the greater biodiversity you will support.4,5
2. Avoid pesticides and embrace a natural approach
Chemical pesticide use is a major contributor to declining pollinator numbers worldwide. Research has shown that exposure to pesticides can interfere with their central nervous system, compromise their immune system and even affect their reproductive success and ability to navigate.6
The most notorious group of pesticides are neonicotinoids. Unlike spray pesticides, neonicotinoids are designed to be absorbed by the plant and linger in its tissues, including the pollen and nectar bees rely on. Neonicotinoids are commonly found in pesticides sold for home use, but they can also be present in plants sold in nurseries. Avoid products that contain these chemicals and remember to ask your local plant nurseries if their plants have been treated with neonicotinoids before purchasing.
If you’re looking to keep plant destroying pests like aphids at bay, counterintuitively, the solution may be to add more insects rather than repel them. By growing native plants that encourage natural pest-eaters such as ladybugs, wasps and beetles, you can plant your way to a chemical-free garden.
3. Be(e)come a landlord
So instilled is our image of the honeybee, that we often forget bees come in all shapes and sizes – most, for example, do not live in hives or make honey. Of the 25,000 known species of bee, 85% are solitary, meaning females create independent nests and live alone, without a colony.7 Some solitary bees like to dig nesting tunnels in the ground, while others prefer to create nests in plant stems or wood.
One way to counteract the loss of natural habitat many solitary species face is to provide safe nesting spaces for them. If you have a garden, this can be as simple as leaving an area of bare soil for ground-nesting species to burrow into. Another option is to build a bee hotel, perfect for wood-tunnelling species – but be warned, if made using improper materials or left forgotten and uncared for, bee hotels can become a breeding ground for mould, parasites and disease.8 For an online tutorial on how to build a DIY bee hotel, see this one from Friends of the Earth. If making it yourself doesn’t sound appealing, you can also buy them readily from online marketplaces.
When you’ve installed your bee sanctuary, make sure you give them some water. Just like us, bees need to stay hydrated but will avoid drinking from deep water for fear of falling in. To give bees a safe landing pad to drink from, make sure to provide small surfaces above the waterline - like stones or sticks.
4. Support beekeepers
Another way to support bees is to buy local honey. Buying local honey (from farmers' markets, independent organic shops or community gardens) supports local beekeepers and helps them cover the cost of beekeeping – and at the same time, supports your area’s biodiversity. An extra positive is that it keeps food miles associated with the transportation and distribution of honey down.
If this wasn’t enough to persuade you, the proof is in the product. A lot of supermarket honey is highly processed – heated to high temperatures, forced through filters, diluted with water and pumped with artificial sugars. The result: a substance that's more akin to syrup than the real thing.9, 10,11 In contrast, local honey is far less processed and therefore retains a lot of its natural flavour and nutrients. Local honey comes in a huge variety of flavours and aromas, reflecting the different surrounding flora the bees have fed on.
5. Educate yourself, inspire others
Bees are fascinating creatures. Whether we have access to a garden or not, one way we can all give back to bees is by educating ourselves. The more we understand and appreciate these complex and vital insects, the more likely we are to share this appreciation with others and spark their action.
Recommended reading on bees: The work of Dave Goulston – author of 8 books and hundreds of scientific papers on bees – would be a good place to start. His 2014 book ‘A Sting in the Tale’, charts the history and evolution of bees, contains illuminating research into the species and warns of the dangers humanity faces in light of bee decline.
For bee-related cinema, two recent documentaries have received worldwide acclaim; ‘The Pollinators’, which looks at America’s bee-pollinated almond industry and weaves a compelling story of the fragility and folly of industrial agricultural systems in failing to accommodate bees, and ‘Honeyland’, a captivating documentary set in rural Macedonia which follows the life of Hatidze Muratova, one of the last wild beekeepers in Europe.
Small acts: big impact
Whether you decide to follow all five steps or just one, it all makes a difference. If we take just one lesson from the bee – it’s that no matter how small an act may seem, when done en mass it can have a huge impact. Growing flowers on a balcony might not feel like much, but if we put our efforts together, we have the capacity to create a vast, sprawling patchwork of habitats for pollinators, and restore some of what’s been lost.
Have you heard of any other ways to support bees? Let us know in the comments section below!
- Monoculture Farming: Monoculture farming is the practice of growing a single species of crop or plant in an agricultural plot at one time. This type of farming has several negative impacts for bees and pollinators, one being that it reduces the diversity of plants pollinators can feed on, which weakens their health and immune system.