Gardeners and the Honeybee Crisis

Shown in the photo is a sunflower being visited by two types of pollinators. On the right is a bumblebee. The other two "bees" are not bees at all; they're a type of fly that mimics the color of bees. Neither of these pollinators is a honeybee.

PEOPLE ARE WORRIED ABOUT HONEYBEES. There have been lots of articles recently about something called Colony Collapse Disorder, or Vanishing Bee Syndrome, in which a lot of the honeybees in a formerly healthy hive suddenly (within a few weeks or even a few days) just vanish. Sometimes the queen and a few workers are left behind; there are often food supplies and larval bees left in the hive. But the majority of the bees are just ... gone.

Of course, this is a fascinating mystery. And it is also a potential disaster for farmers and orchardists whose crops won't set seed or fruit if they're not pollinated by honeybees, as well as professional beekeepers. Not surprisingly, gardeners are starting to wonder whether there is anything they can do to help.

The answer, as so often is the case, is yes and no. But before I get to that, here are a few points to keep in mind:

  • Honeybees are not the only pollinators; they're not even the only kind of bee. There are lots of small creatures, including butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds, that pollinate plants. Even most bees, including the ever-popular bumblebees with their "furry" jackets and big, round bodies, are not honeybees.
  • Honeybees are not wild creatures in the sense that most of our North American pollinators are. Unlike most butterflies and moths and all of our hummingbirds, they didn't originate here in North America. They were brought here by Europeans in the 17th century. Although they have escaped at times and formed wild colonies, they are mostly kept by beekeepers for agricultural purposes or for making honey.
  • Colony Collapse Disorder affects only honeybees. At this point, nobody knows what's causing it. However, most of the reasons that are being looked at seem to have to do with how honeybees are managed. For instance, one possibility is that they've become inbred.
  • Most of our native, truly wild pollinators are having a tough time these days. We do know what factors are causing problems for native pollinators: Probably the leading one is loss of suitable habitat.
What does this mean for gardeners? Well, first, it doesn't appear that there is very much you can do to prevent Colony Collapse Disorder among honeybees. So far, this seems to be a problem that primarily has to be addressed by farmers and beekeepers. If you'd like to learn more about the syndrome, the Wikipedia has a long entry on the topic. The Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group at Penn State University also has a lot of good information.

However, you can do a lot to help all pollinators, particularly our own native pollinators, by doing whatever you can to create good habitat for them. My favorite source for information on this topic is
the Xerces Society. But here are a few tips that will help you create a garden that is friendly not only to honeybees but also to our native pollinators as well:

1. Plant native or very old-fashioned (aka heirloom or "cottage garden") plants.
2. Use plants that produce flowers throughout the growing season.
3. Use plants that produce flowers in a wide range of colours.
4. Use plants that produce flowers with a variety of shapes.
5. Leave an area of the garden "wild" -- let "weeds" grow there, don't do a lot of maintenance.
6. Don't use pesticides.
7. Let the whole garden be "messy."
8. Leave areas of bare, loose soil for bumblebees to nest in.

For more information on pollinator-friendly gardening, see previous posts on:

As I look over this list, I see that I've been neglecting bees. I'll try to say more about gardening for bees very soon.

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