Plight of the Pollinators

Nom nom nom nom

Have you seen me? Photo taken at the Raleigh Arboretum last year.

So I’m wandering around the garden lately, and noticing lots of interesting bugs. Thanks to the reader who sent me the pic of the robber fly–I saw one today! Eating a much smaller fly! And there’s a grasshopper nymph lurking on the sneezeweed and lots of the adorable little bee flies around and skippers and butterflies and gigantic dragonflies and wasps and little tiny flies and glossy ladybugs–an insect menagerie impossible to adequately catalog.

But one species is notable by its absence. They should be everywhere.

Where have all the bees gone?

As many of you probably know already, bee populations are crashing across North America (and in the Old World as well, if my quick googling is any indicator.) Colony collapse disorder, weird viruses, parasites…it’s a nasty mix. Some bee populations are down 70% or more.

This is bad. This is Very Very Bad. Pollinators make agriculture happen. Bees are the big pollinators, the heavy hitters, and without them, we’re in a world of pollination hurt, because no pollinators means we lose a whole lot of vegetables which means that farmers will have to hand-pollinate their crops, which will make any complaint you’ve heard about the price of food seem laughably antiquated.

They’re already bringing in stunt bees. We may yet see a day when those get hard to find.

I started getting concerned earlier this year–I mean, I’ve heard all about the bee problem, but I hadn’t really SEEN it. But the big bumblebees that should be all over the garden, the dominant bug in it, the ones that were here last year, are severely reduced. Some days I wouldn’t see a single one. Most days I’d only see a single one–usually poking her head into my Husker Red penstemon (and I hope to god that plant comes back next year, and if it does, I’ll buy five more, because the bees luuuuv it. Unfortunately penstemons seem to not-do-that-well in the South. Better gardeners than I claim it’s the combination of heat and humidity, and I have no reason to question that.)

Two showed up when my arrowwood viburnum flowered, and rolled around the big white flowerheads, getting coated in pale pollen. A few more arrived for the sundrops’ dramatic yellow bloom. As the season advanced, they began slowly to appear in greater numbers, attracted by the clover in the unmowed lawn (which has also given rise to blue-eyed grass and tiny violets.) But last year’s droning hordes are conspicuously absent.

And those are bumblebees.

I have seen one honeybee this year. One. It wasn’t in my yard–it was at the college where I walk occasionally, where they have multiple bee hives, and there was a single bee working on a bit of clover. If there has been a single honeybee in my yard, I have missed it, and believe me, I’ve been looking.

Okay. Well. Problem stated–what do we DO?

The big thing you could do, of course, is keep bees. I’m not there yet myself, but in two years, I’ve gone from instinctive cringing away from bees to genuine delight when I see one–it may yet happen. The memory of painful stings is still strong, but it’s starting to ebb. Still, that’s a big step I’m not yet willing to take, and probably a lot of you are right there with me (or don’t have enough space to make it viable, or whatever.) But there’s gotta be a way we can still help, right?

Fortunately, yes, there’s a bunch of stuff the lay person can do, and most of it comes down to feeding the bees. We talked about planting spring ephemerals awhile back. From comes the much simpler suggestion–don’t kill the dandelions! Dandelions are apparently a VERY important early source of nectar for bees, and while they’re a non-native weed, they don’t usually make the jump to invade and disrupt more pristine ecosystems, so I’m not gonna yell at you. (Bees will make honey off a lot of nasty non-natives, mind you, and that’s no reason not to take them out–but see if you can’t replace that screaming buttweed with a nice non-invasive that the bees will also enjoy.)

So apparently if you can just refrain from mowing until the dandelions have gone to seed, you can make a lot of bees happy. If you can leave the clover in the lawn, even better.

Secondly–don’t spray for bugs. Insecticides are bad for insects. Lots of insecticides are very bad for bees, and have a high residual toxicity so they keep on being bad for bees and the bee comes by to get nectar from a previously treated flower and goes home and feels very ill.

(I know, I know–you have ticks! You have to kill the ticks! Ticks are awful! Unfortunately, the common tick sprays kill bees. And ants and butterflies and spiders and crickets and many other bugs we really kinda need to get by. They tend to be a very non-specific poison, like Permethrin, which is the most common tick spray. And it does kill ticks. It also kills fish, crayfish, the above mentioned bugs, causes frog deformities, and reduces oxygen carrying blood-cells in birds. It’s pretty gnarly stuff. Them’s the breaks. They don’t make a spray that just kills ticks.)

You want to help the bees in your yard, you kinda gotta stop spraying insecticides. There’s not really a middle road on this one.  Sorry. I wish there was–I hate ticks as much or more than anybody else on earth. Believe me, I feel your pain! And also your itch, although this creme the doctor gave me is helping quite a lot.

If you can manage to do those two things, the bees will thank you. (And seriously, not mowing and not spraying–how much easier does it get?) But if you can also plant some spring ephemerals, that’s fantastic, if you can plant some good nectar plants for later in the year, that’s awesome too. Some of the very best bee plants are actually trees, like the tulip poplar and black locust. (And if you needed yet another reason to avoid those stupid Barlett pears–their flowers are huge and showy and attractive and have no nectar for bees whatsoever. It’s like putting up a restaurant and the food is made of plastic. Sheesh.)

There’s lots of online resources–a quick trip to google will turn up a lot. This is (fortunately!) a well known problem, and it’s one where people with gardens will likely make a big difference in the future. And any suggestions you guys have, please–I’m planting plants, but I’m not any kind of expert, and I’d love to hear more!


  • Ayse says:

    Of course, honeybees themselves are invaders, and they are not terribly useful for pollinating native plants (they prefer European flowers).

    In my Northern CA garden, I help out my native bees by leaving areas of dirt unmulched (or only very lightly mulched) for the bees that nest in the ground. Mulch is very big here for water conservation, but native bees can’t dig through it to make their nests and will just move on. I also obtain clayish soil from elsewhere (my soil is mostly sand) and leave it out, moistened, for the mud-nest bees to gather and use to make their nests. And in the same place I have shallow water with rocks in it so bees can sit down and have a drink of fresh water. (Mosquito dunks do not bother adult bees, so this doesn’t have to turn into a mosquito breeding exercise.)

    One of these days I will get my hands on a largish log and drill holes of varying sizes in it as nesting for bees that like holes in trees. And of course not spraying and letting some weeds flower when they’d be the only thing with nectar or pollen is helpful, too.

    I’ve counted 16 different bee species in my garden, apart from honey bees, and in theory there are at least six more that could be here. And the side bonus is that this is all very attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds, as well.

  • ursulav says:

    @Ayse Wow! That’s quite a feat–sixteen bee species! (I know I’ve got at least three native species, plus the now-absent honeybees, but I’m not good enough at my bee ID to tell more than that…) And very good suggestions–I’ve got plenty of clay soil, but I hadn’t heard about the mulch problem (although that would explain why the ground bees live over on the unmulched hillside…)

  • Becky in VT says:

    I have no bee suggestions, but I think you should get guineas for your tick problem. Besides, you like funny looking animals…

  • Laura H says:

    Suddenly I feel so much better about our lackadaisical lawn-mowing schedule and host of dandelions in the yard. Of course we’re not mowing this weekend! It’s all to help the BEES! 🙂

    I dearly hope, however, that this doesn’t apply to wasps. I hate doing it and it’s lousy on my karma, but I just can’t not kill wasps. (Or, ya know, they might kill me.)

  • ursulav says:

    @Laura H If you hop over to my LJ–I crosspost everything to Livejournal at and that’s where most of the discussion usually takes place–one of my readers, who runs a carnivorous plant nursery, has a lot to say about the good wasps and the bad hornets. I don’t know if it’ll help your reaction, but it’s interesting reading!

  • Ayse says:

    Identifying native bees requires a lot of patience and sitting around staring intently into the patches of flowers they love. When I commented yesterday I forgot to give you this URL, which, sure, is about California native bees, but has some good advice on bee gardens (bees like large swatches of flowers, a square meter at a minimum, for example):

    (My favourite quote: “The more attractive gardens tended to be less manicured, allowing solitary native bees, which make their individual nests in the ground or in trees, to make their nests without disturbance.” Yes, my messy, unweeded garden is a BEE HAVEN.)

  • kat says:

    I used to keep bees but was forced to stop when — in my first year at college — my brother attempted to decant a swarm that had been in the mail too long, got an angry one under his veil, made the cardinal mistake of taking the veil off, was stung thirty times in the head, came into the house passing out and had to do the ambulance thing and has been deathly allergic to bees ever since. I was glad not to loose the brother, over all, but I did miss the bees.

    I’ve just finished buying my own place, though (previous apartment-renters would probably have objected to large-scale buzzy backyard projects) and I’m already plotting to move in a hive or two next spring.

    As always, though, the mountains seem to be spared the worst of it; I see honeybees around quite frequently, and the bumbles have been doing their adorably bumbly “window? I do not understand this window you speak of” thing in a regular way. The thought of loosing them all terrifies me, and not just because I work in agriculture.

    And you don’t have to get stung, really. 🙂 Bro’s experience was an anomaly; I was stung maybe once or twice in my years of beekeeping. Our *cows* got stung, as did our dogs, but honestly if you stick your nose in the slot of a beehive and inhale, you get what’s coming to you. (What the vet had to say about treating internasal beestings will not be repeated.)

  • Uzuri says:

    There’s a solution to ticks — chickens!

    Of course, the little buggers can catch bees, too, but they seem less than inclined to.

  • lisa-jae eggert says:

    can i use organic tick spray, and still raise bees?

    • ursulav says:

      Gotta say, it’s pretty unlikely that any tick spray, regardless of origins, that actually WORKS will not harm bees. I’d have to know the type of tick spray, though–but lots of very bad things are technically organic. If it’s something like mint oil that’s just supposed to drive them off, that’s one thing, but if they’re supposed to actually die dead, then it’ll probably be unkind to bees as well.

      I’d double-check with a beekeeper and see what they say, though.

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