I ask Dr. Richardson if there are ways for us to help the bees.
“Yes!” he says, enthusiastically. “There are big things that people can do and there are little things people can do. It’s not a hopeless situation, and if people care about this, I encourage them to get involved in solving the problems,” he says.
Dr. Richardson’s big and little things you can do to help the bees:
Big: Help slow down global warming and climate change. Yes, I know that’s a huge one. But Dr. Richardson says that climate change is one of the biggest threats to bee species, just as it is for other organisms. “If we want to protect bees, we need to do something to halt the increase in warming that’s caused by [humans] – greenhouse gas emissions,” he says.
Reduce or eliminate the amount of insecticides, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides used in your garden. All of these can be harmful to bees, even if they aren’t necessarily targeting insects.
Buy organic. “Shop like you mean it, and don’t support agriculture that uses harmful chemicals,” says Dr. Richardson.
Bumble Bee Watch is developing a scaled map of where's bees occur, which Dr. Richardson says is very important data.
Join a citizen science project. Dr. Richardson suggests bumblebeewatch.org, which is a project of the Xerces Society. Anyone can go to the website and upload a photo of a bumble bee, or any bee species, with information on the date the photo was taken and the location. “They are developing this scaled map of where bees occur and it’s very important data. It’s a nice thing – a lot of people get involved and learn something about the identification of bees,” explains Dr. Richardson.
“Its personally gratifying for a lot of participants, but there are many thousands of records that have been submitted that are helping scientists understand where bees currently exist.”
Scientists can then compare those data to historic records, helping to determine whether bee populations have shifted with time. “Are bees shifting northward as the climate warms, or are they disappearing from urban areas? You can think of lots of different questions we can actually address with this data collected by people who aren’t specialists, who may not know anything about bees,” says Dr. Richardson.
Native Bees Need Native Plants
The most surprising point Dr. Richardson made in my conversation with him was that “bees aren’t botanists,” meaning they don’t really care if a plant is native or not, as long as it has pollen.
“Bumble bees and many other species of bees avidly collect pollen and nectar from non-native and native plants,” he says. But these species differ from specialist bees that only collect their pollen from a certain type of plant, which is almost always native. “So a loss of that native plant results in loss of the bee,” explains Dr. Richardson. “There, obviously supporting populations of native plants is critical to both the plant and the bee.”
Busy bees and Butterfly Weed
Dr. Richardson says that he doesn’t want to diminish the importance of native plants, “but in general, non-native plants are not directly threatening native bees.” He suggests planting native and locally adapted plants, especially native wildflowers. Dr. Richardson still stresses the importance of gardening. “It definitely makes a positive difference if you do something in your own tiny little backyard if it’s the only land you manage yourself. It’s a very good idea,” he says.
At the end of our conversation, I asked Dr. Richardson if he had anything to add. He paused, and then reiterated his point from earlier. “I’ve said it, but I’ll say it again. I think it’s important that people come to understand better how important native and wild bees are to agriculture,” he says. “A lot of people who are well educated and well versed in the world don’t realize there are so many types of bees.” There are more than 20,000 species globally and nearly 5,000 bee species in North America. “And the European honey bee is just one of those 5,000,” he says.
Dr. Richardson is concerned that our population thinks of farms from the perspective of consumers and eaters, not necessarily as growers.
He says that when many people describe what a farm is, they talk about planting the seeds, watering them, adding fertilizer, controlling pests and so on. “All of those things have to do with the location and what’s on the farm, especially what we put in and take out, and pollination is a key aspect of farming for many plants,” explains Dr. Richardson. He says the revelation that has come in the past decade, that a majority of crops are primarily pollinated by wild animals, hasn’t fully “hit us as a culture yet.”
“So much of what we eat, so much of what sustains us, is mediated by unmanaged animals that are threatened by our behavior,” he concludes. “If you were to think of an analogy from another part of human life, we’d probably be doing a whole lot more about it, because of this very direct, important link and threat.”
Although our test gardens are a small solution to a huge problem, it’s possible that the wild honey bee hive tucked into the tree across the street could be benefiting greatly from them. And despite seeing a decline in the bee population in the hive as the summer progressed, we’ll keep gardening – amongst many other things – to help be a part of the solution to the disappearing bee population.
A hungry bee pollinating on a Sulphur Cosmos, captured by our Photo Contest Winner, Dennis Kendall
Further Resources from Dr. Richardson:
Bumblebeewatch.org, a citizen science project where you can upload photos you’ve taken of bees in your area.
Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization that projects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat.
BugGuide.net, a community where people submit photos of bees and ask for identifications. Specialists arrange the photos and give info on them.
DiscoverLife.org, a place to find nature identification guides, including a thorough guide for bees.