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Tip of the Week: Ways to Help the Bees

As pollinators, bees are crucial in making backyard gardens fully productive. Sadly, pesticide use, habitat loss and other factors have created a decline in bee populations. Follow these tips to help them recover.
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Right: This bee box was constructed for mason bees, an important wild pollinator.

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One of the most important things you can do to make your fruit and vegetable garden more productive and eco-friendly is to help the bees. These hardworking pollinators have been called our gardens’ unsung heroes. And as you probably have heard, they are in trouble. "Now that nutritious wild sources of pollen are decreasing, home gardeners can help the bees thrive once more by providing a variety of flowers and nesting places for these essential pollinators," says Mayra Quirindongo, a public health researcher at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) who studies colony collapse disorder and pesticides.

Did you know that bees are responsible for producing more than one-third of our nation’s food, including apples, blueberries, cantaloupes, cucumbers, squash and carrots? "We need bees,” says Quirindongo. “They are responsible for pollinating the foods in one out of three mouthfuls in the typical American diet.” Bees are crucial to fruit and vegetable formation in backyard gardens.

Unfortunately, pesticide use, habitat loss and a combination of other factors have caused bee populations to plummet in recent years. Nationwide, beekeepers lost more than 35 percent of their honeybee colonies from 2006 to 2008. (Read more here.) “The plight of bees has gotten a lot of attention lately, but there is a lot we can do to help at home,” says Quirindongo. “Watching out for bee-toxic pesticides, planting native flowers and building bee boxes can all help---and even better these all help connect the whole family to nature while learning the source of our food."

So help your local bees by making your yard and garden colorful, diverse and pesticide free. Follow these simple tips:

  • Plant local native flowers to attract and feed bees. Native flowers are well-suited for local bee populations and can be grown without fussing.
  • Plant lots of flowering plants to give bees a diverse food supply.
  • Consider your color palette. Bees have good vision and are attracted to white, yellow, blue and purple flowers. 
  • Include flowers that bloom in different seasons. This offers bees a sustained food supply and attracts different species of bees. In spring, offer rhododendron, wild lilac, California poppy, marigolds and scented geraniums. For summer, plant penstemons, sunflowers, lavender, black-eyed Susans, goldenrods, basil, borage and joe-pye weed. Autumn bee favorites include asters and sedums.
  • Pollen is bee food, so avoid planting genetically engineered pollen-free flowers, which trick bees into thinking they'll find food and then leave them hungry. (Flower pollen isn't a big contributor to most people's allergies.)
  • Avoid pesticides. There are many natural methods to control garden pests. Use beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings to prey on various harmful insects; they can be purchased through catalogs. Use natural diatomaceous earth (not the pool-grade kind) for insect control and baking soda dissolved in water for fungus control. Some researchers believe pesticides are a contributing factor to Colony Collapse Disorder. Also, some insecticides are harmful to bees, and herbicides can kill flowers that provide bees with food. If you must, use targeted pesticides and spray in dry weather and at night when bees aren't active.
  • Build a bee box! About 30 percent of native bee species make their nests in old beetle tunnels, in snags (dead standing trees) or in similar locations. If possible, leave snags standing to encourage nesting. Where you can’t, make some nesting blocks. Here’s how!

Read about beekeeping in the garden

Tips and image courtesy of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Visit their web pages for more about bees, bee-friendly gardening and colony collapse disorder.