Bee lovers are abuzz on National Honeybee Day, the time of year when we honor nature’s hardest-working pollinator.
People owe a lot to bees – namely, many of the foods we enjoy, like strawberries, avocados and broccoli. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that every 1 in 3 bites of food exists because of animal pollinators, and bees lead the charge.
Luckily, honeybees aren’t in danger of extinction like other bee species, but their health is critical to the survival of all bees. When honeybees are infected with pathogens or parasites, they infect native bees that are more vulnerable to extinction, said Alixandra Prybyla, science director of the Honeybee Conservancy.
“Saving the bees” seems like a lofty goal, but you don’t have to be a beekeeper to make an impact. Here are some small changes you can make to keep bees healthy.
Plant a garden of any size
Not only does a yard full of native flowers look beautiful, it’s an open buffet for bees who feed on nectar and pollen.
“Pollen is what provides honeybees with important amino acids, or the building blocks of protein,” Prybyla said.
Poor nutrition is one of several causes of bee colony decline. But with a wide variety of flowers, bees consume a wide variety of amino acids, which keeps them healthy and better protects them from pests and pathogens.
Planting native flowers that bloom year-round ensures that bees have a constant food source, according to the Honeybee Conservancy.
If you don’t have room for a full garden, even a bed of flowers on a windowsill can sustain bees. Just be sure you’re planting without pesticides or chemicals, which can poison bees.
And if you can’t plant at home, plant somewhere else. The Planet Bee Foundation provides seed balls, tiny portable flower pots made of organic clay, dirt and seeds of flowers native to the region where they’ll be planted. They easily break down and blossom, and they can be planted most anywhere that’s green.
Keep the mowing to a minimum
A neatly kept lawn is nice, but letting it grow a bit long invites bees to visit dandelions, clovers and other weeds that sprout, said Debra Tomaszewski, executive director of Planet Bee.
If you’re really committed to saving the bees, you could rip up your traditional turf and plant a “bee lawn,” in which flowers, weeds and grass grow together to attract bees and other insects. The Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota says these beautiful, yet untamed, lawns can resist drought and flooding better than turf grass.
Get to know your local beekeeper
Prybyla recommends befriending your local beekeepers and buying honey and honey byproducts directly from them. You can quiz them to make sure they’re using best hive practices, like leaving enough honey for their bees to feed on all year instead of harvesting it all and feeding them sugar water instead.
“Knowing your local beekeeper allows you to have a relationship with the bees whose products you’re enjoying – and to be honest, that’s pretty magical!” she said.
Make a bee bath
Like any living thing, bees need water. Leaving out a small amount of water for bees helps them survive sweltering summers, Tomaszewski said. All you need is a small, shallow container with an object for the bees to land on while they drink, and the bees can carry drops of water back to feed their colonies.
And don’t worry about dirty water, Prybyla said: “Bees like muckier water because it has more nutrients in it.”
Join a citizen science project
Bee lovers of all ages can contribute to research. Organizations often enlist volunteers to count different types of bees for nationwide or regional studies, Tomaszewski said.
Project Bee partners with San Francisco State University to recruit elementary school children for its ZomBee project. Students watch for zombie-like honeybees affected by a zombie fly parasite.
Bumble Bee Watch recruits people from every state in the United States and Canada to record bumblebees they see. People send in a photo and location, and researchers identify the species to create a live map of bee sightings.
Avoid products grown with pesticides
Fruits and vegetables treated with chemicals often poison bees. In fact, pesticides are one of the primary drivers of the declining bee population. Opting for locally grown, chemical-free products at farmers’ markets is a healthy choice and a humane one, Prybyla said.
Don’t call pest control if you see a swarm
Bill Tomaszewski, Debra’s husband and PlanetBee’s co-founder, said bee swarms are a sign that hives are healthy. When a colony has too many bees, the hive will split in half, and the other half will travel to find a new home.
“Sometimes you’ll see a swarm, and people get scared. But bees aren’t aggressive during the swarm,” he said. “It’s not biblical; they’re not coming down to attack you.”
The swarm usually dissipates within an hour, he said. So as long as they’re allowed to travel in peace, they probably won’t harm any people.