Honeybees face a lot of challenges today! A small garden plot or container garden managed to suit them is a great opportunity to support your community’s native pollinators while bolstering your harvests. What you will find is that your bees like many of the same things you do!
What is going on with the bees?
We do not understand the many factors that seem to contribute to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The sudden die-off of entire colonies of bees was first remarked upon in 2006. When the colony collapses, the only bees left in the hive are the queen and immature bees (1). Scientists began to conclude that neonicotinoids (or neonics) were causing the problems. They still might be part of the problem. Thanks to further study and scientific methods, people continue to research the problems. There is some recognition now that the die off of adult workers forces young bees to become workers in a collapsing colony. (2) Why would that happen? It seems that there isn’t as much out there for the bees to forage on. (3) Also, bees, like everyone else, have to deal with more toxins in their environment. We can recognize that the problems contributing to CCD reflect the interconnected nature of life on the planet.
Here is an excerpt from the USDA site on Colony Collapse Disorder (1):
Scientists are looking in four general categories for the cause/causes of CCD:
Pathogens: Among others, scientists are considering Nosema (a pathogenic gut fungi), Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, and possibly unknown pathogens as possible culprits in CCD. ARS research has indicated that no one pathogen of any class directly correlates with the majority of CCD incidents. Rather, a higher total pathogen load of viruses and bacteria correlates more directly with CCD than any one specific pathogen.
Parasites: Varroa mites are often found in honey bee colonies that are affected by CCD. It is not known if the Varroa mites are directly involved or if the viruses that Varroa mites transmit (similar to the way mosquitoes transmit the malaria virus) are a factor in causing CCD.
Management stressors: Among the management stressors that are possible contributors to CCD are poor nutrition due to apiary overcrowding and increased migratory stress brought on by the honey bees being transported to multiple locations across the country.
Environmental stressors: Such stressors include the impact of pollen/nectar scarcity, lack of diversity in nectar/pollen, availability of only pollen/nectar with low nutritional value, and limited access to water or access only to contaminated water. Stressors also include accidental or intentional exposure to pesticides at lethal or sub-lethal levels. (1)
How to suit the bee’s needs:
This information seems to be consistent across the debates. It seems there are some things we can do to help a local colony!
1. Plant so there is something flowering throughout the season. Bees feed on pollen from flowers. Attract bees to your garden by having flowering plants at all times. Dedicate some space in your garden (or Garden Tower) for annual flowers. When they begin to fade, replace them with something that will bloom through the next part of the season. We like flowers, too, so this strategy agrees with most gardeners.
Here are a few popular flowers you can put in your garden to feed the bees and keep them healthy (4): Sweet Alyssum, Salvia, Yarrow, Lavender, Borage
2. Plant herbs for bee health. Many of our herbs for cooking also contain substances that are good for bee health. Many people recognize the mind family for its benefits to bees—and there are more than 4,000 plants in the mint family! Some of our favorite cooking herbs—like thyme and oregano are good for bees—and tasty in our kitchen dishes, too. These plants provide immune support to both you and the bees.
Here is a list of herbs you might like to try in your garden (or Garden Tower) for Bees: Oregano, Thyme (there are many varieties), Mints: try chocolate mint! Because mints can be expansive in a garden, it is a good idea to put them in a container to limit their spread.
3.Other things to do:
Make water available to bees. The water should be in shallow containers so the bees can approach it safely.
Plant other areas of your garden to support bees. You can use the same patterns of planting from your Garden Towers to apply to you landscape. What if you don’t own land for more garden? Borrow someone else’s land! Ask the building owner or neighbors—or the city—to include some of these trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants in the landscape. Bees often do not have adequate forage in the late summer and fall. Include some unusual plants that bloom late in your garden design. A strip of perennial prairie plants could be just the thing! Here are a few to get you started: Coneflower (Echinacea), Asters, Goldenrod, Pincushion Flowers, Strawflowers, milkweeds (and they will help the monarch butterflies, too.)
With even a little space, you could plant a forest garden/orchard to provide even more forage for the bees—and fruit for you!
If you live near areas that have problems with pesticide drift consider putting up screening. This could be a thickly planted windbreak or a trellis with plants that help filter and clean the air. This can be healthier for you and create a sanctuary for the bees.
Consider keeping bees. Bees thrive in surprising spaces. Rooftops and other edge spaces are often perfect for beehives. Always check your local laws and best practices recommendations. (6) Also, take a class on bee keeping! There are often schools for bee keeping in late winter to help out new people. Beekeepers tend to be generous with their time and advice.
Bees are an important part of our world and critical to our cultivated food systems. Your efforts might make the difference for a hive. It could mean more fruit and more honey for you. All around it is a sweet deal!
Resources and notes
2. http://www.pnas.org/content/112/11/3427.abstract. Rapid behavioral maturation accelerates failure of stressed honey bee colonies Clint J. Perry, Eirik Søvik, Mary R. Myerscough , and Andrew B. Barron