Wednesday, January 18, 2017 10 comments

A tragic bee-ginning to 2017

Rusty patched bumble bee (courtesy

Tuesday the 10th of January was a notable day in American history. But not for a reason worth cheering about.

The rusty patched bumble bee (Bombis affinis) was placed on the Endangered Species List by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, a first for the continental U.S. Other native bees may soon follow.

According to Tamara Smith, a biologist with the service, the bee was once so prevalent in Midwest cities, people used to shoo them away. 20 years later, even observant scientists are having difficulty spotting one.

In fact, since the late 1990’s the rusty-patched bumble bee population has declined by 90 %. Once found in 28 states, the bee is now reported in only 13 states and 1 Canadian province: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin – and Ontario, Canada.

There is no one culprit when comes to the demise of bees: habitat loss, climate change, exposure to pesticides and disease all contribute.

For example, not long ago the grasslands and tallgrass prairies of the Upper Midwest and Northeast  were alive with bees. Sadly most of these habitats are now gone for a variety of reasons.

As for pesticides, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says bees can absorb toxins directly through their exoskeleton and through contaminated nectar and pollen. Rusty patched bumble bees nest in the ground and may be susceptible to pesticides that persist in agricultural soils, lawns and turf.

After the endangered bee was announced, the Obama White House launched its strategy to improve the health of honeybees and other pollinators. The program aims to reduce losses for commercial honeybees over the next decade. The White House will also ask federal agencies to restore 7 million acres of pollinator-friendly habitat that will help improve bee diets and therefore make them more resilient.

It's a crucial game plan if we hope to reverse the decline of native insects. And why is the health of the rusty patched bee so important? The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service sums it succinctly:

“As pollinators, rusty patched bumble bees contribute to our food security and the healthy functioning of our ecosystems. Bumble bees are keystone species in most ecosystems, necessary not only for native wildflower reproduction, but also for creating seeds and fruits that feed wildlife as diverse as songbirds and grizzly bears."

Reading the USF&W report, I discovered something I did not know: bumble bees are virtually the only insect pollinators of tomatoes. It's difficult to imagine a world without juicy, ripe tomatoes fresh from the garden.

How you can lend a hand

Various species of bees, along with moths, butterflies, birds, bats and other animals are pollinators. The pollen (powder-like material from the male parts of flowers) they move between flowers of the same species results in fertilization, enabling plants to produce blooms, seeds or fruits. 

No room for a garden? Add flowering pots or a window box
Gardeners can play an important role in helping pollinators like bees increase their numbers by offering essential food, water and shelter. Even those who don’t have a garden can participate by planting window boxes and containers with bee favorites.

The first step is to choose plants for your garden that supply a diversity of nectar and pollen throughout the growing season.  Bees are partial to plants living in their own habitats, so choose wildflowers and natives whenever possible. Not sure which natives flourish near you? Visit the Pollinator Partnership and type in your zip code on the Planting Guide page, and you’ll be able to download a PDF with specific recommendations for your area. 

Bees love coneflowers
There is also a helpful Bloom Period guide so you can plan to have something flowering from spring to fall.  Native plant societies can offer additional guidance.

Beyond natives
If natives aren’t readily available, you can find bee-approved choices at most local nurseries and garden centers. (Before buying, ask if their plants have been bred with neonicinoids, pesticides that can harm or kill bees.) Pesticide-free verbena, rudbeckia, yarrow, salvias, coneflowers and flowering herbs are all good choices. Catmints are particularly useful because they will continue to bloom deep into fall with regular trimming.

Heirlooms from grandmother’s garden such as daisies, hollyhocks, asters, and old-fashioned roses are especially attractive to bees. (Flat flowers like daisies and single roses make it easier for bees to collect pollen.) Even veggies can be part of the plan: pollinators will make a beeline for cucumber and squash flowers.

Colors and clusters
Yellow is mellow to bees
Entomologists studying bees have learned they can see four colors – yellow, blue, bluish green (which is how they view white) and violet. They perceive red as black. So when considering plant varieties, your palette should include the blue, yellow and purple flowers bees find appealing.

Choose a sunny location and set out your plants in groups. Again, be sure to stagger bloom times so there will be food available throughout the year. And avoid using pesticides that can be toxic to bees.

Water and shelter
Twigs keep bees from drowning
Although we rarely see them taking a drink, bees appreciate gardens that offer a source of water. It can be as simple as filling a shallow dish with small stones and twigs so bees can land and rest while drinking. A birdbath also offers a dependable destination for bees to take a sip when necessary. Be sure to use clean, chemical free water, and replace supplies regularly.

According to the USDA NaturalResources Conservation Service, there are over 5,000 different species of native or wild bees living in the U.S. These bees don’t live in hives like honeybees but in logs, dead tree limbs, even in holes in the ground. 

Home for solitary bees
As part of the garden, leave an area of bare dirt for ground nesters. You can even build your own shelter by drilling holes in an untreated wood block. The holes should be 3” to 5” deep and approximately ¼” in diameter. Allow an inch between each hole. Choose a site for your “nest” that is protected as much as possible from wind and rain – under the eaves of a shed, for example.

These habitats, along with access to water and bee friendly plants, will create an environment that will soon have your local pollinators buzzing.

And will help solve a bee-deviling problem.

Not long after writing this posting, the Trump administration delayed placing the bee under federal protection citing the need to review concerns of groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation and American Petroleum Industry. Fortunately the administration eventually reversed course and the bee was declared officially endangered on March 21st.