Updated: Jul 21, 2022
What's the first thing that comes to mind when you see a bee? Your first instinct might be to duck, swat at the bee, or run away. And if you've ever experienced a painful sting from a bee, that's understandable. But bees play a crucial role on our planet, and without them, life and our food supply as we know them would drastically change. It's essential that we understand the importance of bees and other pollinators. The more we know about them, the more we can respect them and the less we may fear them.
June is National Pollinators month, and there's no better time than the present to learn more about the relationship between humans and pollinators and why they are so important to our food chain.
"The hum of bees is the voice of the garden."
Bees are not the world's only pollinators, but they are the most important. Many different species of bees pollinate our flowers, but some are more effective than others. Interestingly enough, these native species like mason bees and leafcutter bees are far less likely to sting than other bee species. Bumblebees rarely sting as well. These are all effective pollinators who prefer to live nonaggressive lives.
We were lucky enough to have a colony of bumblebees build an underground nest in our yard last summer. It was a lot of fun to watch them fly in and out of the nest doing their important bee work.
This nest was in our garden area near both our greenhouse and our garden seating area. We were around the bees for much of every day, and not once did they attempt to sting any of us.
In fact, our kids would sit right by the entrance and allow the bees to land on them. They really enjoyed watching them up close.
Much like many other members of the animal kingdom, if you show them respect and kindness, they'll do the same for you.
This group of hardworking bumbles provided us with a bounty of produce by spending their days pollinating our cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, and peppers. From sunup to sundown, they could be seen and heard buzzing around our garden.
I read somewhere that if bumblebees choose your yard to establish a colony, you should feel blessed. So I was quite pleased when these guys and gals showed up. The video at right shows them up close, and it is my hope that it conveys not only how organized they are, but also how gentle they are. This site has some great information about bumblebees if you'd like to know more.
Are bees really that important?
The answer is an overwhelming yes. Albert Einstein has been quoted as having said that if bees were to disappear from the surface of the earth, humans would have no more than four years to live. There's no proof he ever actually said that, nor is that likely to be true. However, it would dramatically change everything about how we eat if we were to lose the bees.
While much of our food supply comes from cereal grains like wheat, which are wind-pollinated and thus would not be affected by the loss of bees, our vegetable and fruit supply would suffer. It is possible to pollinate plants and trees by hand, but it is very labor-intensive and time-consuming.
It would lead to a sharp rise in the price of produce and likely a decrease in availability. Some fresh produce may be lost altogether, at least in mass production. Britannica has some wonderful information about the harsh reality of living in a world without bees.
With the current climate in our world- war, political instability, lingering supply chain shortages, and so much more, we can't really afford to lose the bees too, can we?
Are all bees effective pollinators?
While most species of bees and wasps can pollinate, they are certainly not all as effective at pollination as others. Native bees such as mason bees and leafcutter bees are highly effective pollinators. In fact, they can be up to two or three times more effective than honeybees! Most of these native bee species are solitary. Instead of living in organized hives or colonies, they live alone, often underground or in old logs.
The female native bees are real superstars. They gather all the pollen and nectar, build all the nests, and lay their eggs all without the help of a colony like other bee species.
Most of these bees also have short lifespans. Males live only about two weeks, just long enough to mate. Females live just a few weeks longer than males so that they have time to lay their eggs.
Much of a native bee's life is spent inside its cocoon in whatever nesting site its mother chose for her young. They spend the winter in the nesting location until emerging as the weather warms in spring.
With such a short lifespan, you can see why these bees work so hard to ensure a safe nesting place for their young. These moms want to make sure their young survive to carry on their important work! This article from Almanac has some great information.
Are bees the only pollinators?
Bees and wasps are not the only pollinators. Other animals such as butterflies, moths, birds, and bats all make the list as well. Who doesn't enjoy seeing a beautiful, brightly-colored butterfly floating gracefully around the garden? Or if you venture outside at night, you might be lucky enough to see a luna moth.
While butterflies and moths are considered "accidental pollinators" since they don't actively seek out pollen, they are still important pollinators. As they go from one flower to the next to drink the flower's nectar, pollen sticks to their delicate little legs and gets transferred around.
Bats are very important pollinators as well, and in fact, are the exclusive or main pollinator for more than 530 types of plants! One of these plants is agave, so the next time you enjoy that margarita or tequila shot, thank a bat!
Birds such as hummingbirds are great pollinators too. One of my favorite summer sights is a bright, tiny hummingbird flitting through my flowers. It's easy to draw them in. You can get some tips here.
As the hummingbirds fly from one flower to the next drinking the nectar, pollen sticks to their beaks and is transferred from flower to flower. In the United States, hummingbirds are actually some of the key wildflower pollinators. The wildflowers also draw in bees and butterflies, helping to continue the cycle of pollination.
How can we help the pollinators?
There are many things we can do to help the world's pollinators. The National Wildlife Federation offers some great tips:
Plant a garden: any time you add flowering plants to your landscape, you're helping pollinators.
Grow native plants: native plants and native wildlife have grown and evolved with each other. Planting native species gives native animals a huge leg up.
Provide nesting areas: you can leave natural areas like mounds of sand or old logs around your yard, but you can also buy nesting boxes for bees. We have used one for the last two summers and they love it.
Avoid pesticides when possible: it is understandable that you may need to use pesticides sometimes. After all, no one expects you to tolerate damaging bugs like termites, or dangerous bugs like venomous spiders in your home. But minimizing your use of pesticides or herbicides in your garden is highly important for pollinator health. It also never hurts to try natural options first. Consumer Notice has a great article on alternatives to popular pesticides, and you can check it out here.
By following all of these tips over the last several years, we were able to draw many pollinators to our yard. We moved this spring to a home that hasn't been lived in for years and that has seen no yard maintenance in at least a decade. It will take time to get flowers planted and bring all the bees we're used to seeing to our new home, but I know we will.
I previously wrote a post about creating a pollinator garden that offers some great tips for creating your very own pollinator paradise. I've also written specifically about helping the bee population, and you can read that post here. As you can see, this is an issue that I am passionate about.
Not only is it clearly important that we do more to protect our pollinators, but it is also important to me that I help people understand that bees are not out to hurt us. If you were out with your family and someone threatened your children, you'd stand up and fight back. Bees are no different. Respect is a two-way street. It must be both given and earned.
If we all do our part, we can do a whole lot to help the bees, butterflies, and all the other wonderful creatures that help to pollinate our crops and keep our food supply going. The little steps we can all take will be so meaningful to the pollinators.
How do you help the pollinators? Let us know in the comments!