Bees: The Heroes of the Home Garden

Bee and flower.jpg

Bees: The Heroes of the Home Garden
If there’s one animal we take for granted, it’s the honeybee. Not only do they help keep the world beautiful by pollinating our favorite flowers, American agriculture quite literally depends on it for survival. That’s right. Agriculture -- arguably the most important development in human history -- would not be possible without bees. The USDA estimates that one in every three bites of food you take in your lifetime depends on bee pollination. From the fruits and vegetables we eat to the hay and grass we use to feed livestock, all of it requires pollinators to exist.

Pollination 101

Pollination is the transfer of genetic material between plants of the same species resulting in fertilization. The “genetic material” is pollen -- the same stuff that makes your eyes itch in the spring. While some plants can self-pollinate, plant communities need genetic diversity in order to survive.

The flower of a plant contains all the necessary parts for reproduction. The male organs -- or stamen -- of a flower produce the pollen necessary for reproduction. When bees rub against the anthers of the flower, the pollen made by the stamen sticks to their body. When the bee flies off to another plant of the same species, some of the pollen reaches the female organs of another flower through the stigma. The flower now has the new genetic material necessary to reproduce.

Why do bees pollinate?

Bees and plants have a symbiotic relationship -- that is, they mutually benefit from working together. Bees use pollen as a source of protein to feed their developing offspring. When a bee lands on a plant to collect pollen, the sticky dust also attaches to the insect’s feet and abdomen. Most bees are covered with a fuzzy hair that attracts pollen. The bee then flies off to another plant of the same species, transferring the pollen and allowing the chance for pollination.

Some flowers produce a sweet, fragrant nectar that attracts bees. The plants that attract the most bees are more likely to reproduce. The bees, in turn, get a sweet treat that keeps them going through the livelong day.

What we can do to help them

Every home garden should have some flowers planted specifically to attract bees. Even if a bed full of blooming flowers isn’t your end goal, supplementing your vegetable patch with these pollinators encourages further pollination for your other plants. Typically, bees gravitate towards plants that produce a lot of nectar. The different species of goldenrod and milkweed are great for attracting pollinating bees. Additionally, look into creating nesting habitats where new communities of bees can live.

In addition to planting flowers that attract bees, limit the amount and type of pesticides you use in your garden. Pesticides kill a single bee at best, but they also have the potential to be devastating for an entire community. Low doses of certain insecticides confuse bees and disrupt their navigation skills. If a bee is able to make it back to their nest, the pesticide is then transferred to the rest of the colony. The development of larvae is altered and the future of the colony is in jeopardy.

Supporting local agriculture by shopping at your local farmers’ market is another simple, yet impactful way to help the bees. Not only can you buy fresh, organic produce, you’ll meet local farmers working to make a positive impact on the bee crisis. You’ll probably even stumble across a few local beekeepers with fresh honey for sale!

The plight of the bees is serious, but not hopeless. Plant a few pollinator flowers in your garden (it can even boost your home value), avoid pesticides, and visit your local farmers’ market to support local organic farmers -- and don’t forget to keep up the conversation about saving our precious pollinators.

Author: Christy Erickson (SavingOurBees.org)