Q. This is probably one of those questions without an answer, but are there any simple measures I can take in my everyday life to help stop (or even just slow) the disappearance of bees? — Tom, WI

A. There are! In a word: Give bees a place to live and pollinate. That is, host them right in your backyard. The poor critters are getting pushed out of all sorts of places, thanks to urban and suburban development, but there are several simple actions you can take to make them feel right at home in your garden or on your lawn. Mace Vaughan, Conservation Director at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, has these gems of pollination wisdom to dispense:

  • Bee-tox: The first thing to do is to detox your lawn. Give your chem lawn type landscape service its walking papers. Pollinators are a fragile bunch, and many native bees nest in the ground, says Vaughan, so lawn company insecticides will really do them in. “Even organic services may use natural products like pyrethrins, which are labeled for organic use, but still kill pollinators,” says Vaughan. Think your modest little lawn isn’t big enough to make a difference? Think again. Urban gardens and backyards suck up even more insecticide than conventional farm land does. 
  • Flower child: Think blossoms. Grow lots of different kinds of flowering plants on your property, so that at any given time from early spring right through to autumn there will be at least three or four species in bloom. Trees, shrubs, and wild flowers will all do just fine. Some recommendations: Willow for early springtime flowering, locust for early summer, basswood, linden (which produces tons of pollen and nectar), native raspberries, elderberry, native roses, lupines, asters, goldenrod, blackeyed susans, sage, sunflower, and buckwheat. “Where you can, plant these in clumps so that the flowering area is more than 3ft by 3ft to make them more attractive,” says Vaughan. And if you’re allergic to pollen, don’t panic. Most people who get allergic reactions during pollen season are reacting negatively to airborn pollen (from plants like ragweed), and not from the big, sticky types of pollen you’ll find in the above species.
  • Bare all: Incorporate small areas of bare soil into your garden or lawn. Bees like to nest where there’s a little open space on the ground, and are more likely to move in and enjoy your prime real estate if they feel they’ve got room to breathe.
  • Tunnel vision: Some native bees nest not in the ground, but in hollowed out vertical structures, like tree trunks. Help these guys out by drilling narrow holes (5/16 inch or less) five inches down through blocks of wood, then setting the blocks out on your property. Home sweet home.
  • Let your lawn go: If you’re not too vain about the appearance of your lawn, leave a corner of it “undisturbed and untidy,” says Vaughan. Think tall grasses, piles of sticks, general horticultural chaos. The mess will invite mice to set up house, and when they leave, bees will move into the nice insulated little cavity-homes they’ve dug out.
For more tips and facts, visit the Xerces Society’s pollinator conservation site.
Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008