In the Northern Hemisphere, it's springtime. And thoughts naturally turn to the birds and the bees.
Except, of course, this year — when the bee seems to be in trouble. You've probably heard about colony collapse disorder (CCD) or vanishing bee syndrome, the mysterious and rather dramatic die-off of domesticated honeybees in Europe and North America. Scientists aren't really sure what's going on yet. All that's known for sure is our bee colonies are suddenly disappearing. Affected bees simply leave the hive and don't come back, making diagnosis of the problem even more difficult.
In some areas, losses of honeybees are reported to be as high as 75 percent. The situation means a lot more than high honey prices: bees are primary pollinators in both the human and animal food chains. The collapse of bee populations is bad news if researchers can't get a handle on the issue, and bee colonies don't recover.
So what could be happening here? There's some research pointing to unusually high concentrations of parasites and fungi — which are normally present in bee colonies — but nobody knows why the levels are so high. Pesticides, genetically modified crops and climate change are all being investigated. A theory that cell phone radiation might be a factor was quickly dismissed after briefly topping media reports.
Few of us are research scientists capable of chipping in some lab time to help out, but there are some things we can all do to assist honeybee and natural bee populations close to home. We've got five specific areas for you to consider. Let's get buzzin'!
Plant things that bees like
Bees are all about pollen. If you want to support the many different varieties of bees which range through your yard, plant some things which will feed them.
The good news here is that bee-friendly plants are easy to grow. Scatter a variety through your yard, ensuring a good supply of pollen through the warm months. A few general pointers: avoid horticultural plants that are "double." These usually have extra petals instead of anthers. And bees prefer flowers that are blue, purple or yellow.
Clover is a great choice. Bees love it, and clover makes attractive and robust ground cover. There are organic varieties available.
Other bee-yummy plants: sage, salvia, oregano, lavender, ironweed, yarrow, yellow hyssop, alfalfa, honeywort, dragonhead, echinacea, bee balm (guess where the name comes from?), buttercup, goldenrod and English thyme.
Flowering trees are also attractive to bees. Try tulip poplars, tupelos, oranges and sourwoods. Don't forget that bees need sources of shallow water. Nichols Garden Nursery has several items to help foster mason bees, an increasingly important variety in view of the domestic honeybee's troubles.
Unless you have particular bee allergies, don't be afraid of attracting pollinators to your property. The "bees" that give most people trouble — yellowjackets, wasps and hornets — aren’t really bees at all, and won’t be attracted by bee-friendly plants.
Provide bee habitat
A secure place to live is crucial to solitary and colony bees. Unlike honeybees, which live in the waxy hives with which we're all familiar, natural bees make use of many kinds of shelter: abandoned animal burrows, dead trees and branches and in underground nest tunnels.
You can help wood-nesting bees by setting out a few inexpensive bee blocks. These are basically blocks of wood with holes of various sizes. Providing a mound or two of loose earth — particularly if they're close to a water source — is like opening a rent-free apartment complex for burrowing bees.
Hosting a few bee shelters will give you the opportunity to watch your visitors thrive.
Eliminate garden pesticides
Pesticides are bad for humans. They're worse for bees. Investigate organic and natural means of pest control.
Vibrant, chemical-free plants and gardens are a friendly invitation to wild bees.
Let your veggies bolt
If at all possible, allow a few leafy vegetables in your home garden to "bolt," or go to seed, after harvest.
Seeding plants are a bee's best chance to stock up on food before the colder months. Unlike their wasp and yellowjacket cousins, which die out each winter, real bees slow down and wait for spring. Making sure their larder is stocked will help them snap back once the weather warms.
Support your local beekeepers
Beekeeping as a hobby has declined in recent years. Commercial pressures and unstable bee populations has made raising bees less attractive, but we still rely heavily on domesticated honeybees to pollinate our crops and gardens. Seek out your local beekeepers and buy their honey. There are health benefits to eating local honey, and keeping small beekeepers in business is good for everyone. You're likely to find them selling honey at local farmer's markets and weekend flea markets. Treat yourself to some filtered or comb honey and enjoy one of nature's treasures.
Do you have kids? One of the best things you can do is tour a local beekeeper's hives. Teaching children the interdependence of living creatures is something which will stay with them forever. You'll probably put a smile on some beekeeper's face, too.