Did you know that there are more kinds of bees in the world than all the bats, birds, snakes and lizards put together? Some as tiny as a gnat while others are giants, the size of humming birds. Scientists have already described 25,000 kinds (biologists call them species) of bees from around the world. In the United States, there are just under 4,000 named bee species. Bees are important to us and to other animals and plants because they visit flowers in search of pollen and nectar. These are the foodstuffs that the female bees feed to their young.
Many bees are like sand wasps which nest in barren patches on level ground or banksides. The mother bee digs a narrow tunnel that may be branched. Each tunnel branch ends in a rounded "cell." This is where she packs away all the food that the young bee needs to complete its development and metamorphose into an adult. Other types of bees (leafcutter and mason bees for example) don’t dig their own nests. Instead, they look for abandoned beetle burrows in dead trees and dead limbs. They often use resins, pebbles, bark or pieces of chewed leaves to create their cells separating the young bees from one another. Bees are mostly herbivores feeding upon protein and fat-rich pollen and energy-rich sweet nectar from flowers.
Why save Bees Anyway?
Almost all bees are hairy and this helps them to be champion pollinators. Pollen grains from flowers stick to their fuzzy bodies when bees fly from flower to flower. Some of the pollen rubs off onto the stigmas of other flowers. The pollen grains germinate and help produce the seeds within fruits. Without bees you wouldn’t have that tasty crisp apple or orange in your lunch box. We can thank pollinators like bees for about a third what we eat. In addition to vegetables and fruits we have bees to thank for much of our cotton clothing, fruit drinks and even some medicines. It would be a much different world with a less nutritious and tasty diet without bees in our gardens and on farms. Bees are also excellent recyclers. Their nests aerate the soil and pollen they store underground, and their dung, enriches the soil just like earthworms. Honey bees provide us with tasty honey and beeswax for candles.
Don’t be afraid of bees. Many types of native bees (digger bees, mason bees, and sweat bees) won’t try to sting you. Even honey bees and bumblebees aren’t a threat unless you disturb their hidden nests. Enjoy learning about bees firsthand by sitting quietly by a patch of flowers. How long do they spend on each type of flower? Can you see their brightly-colored pollen loads?
What are the Threats to Bees?
Bees often provide a tasty snack for birds, mice, lizards and spiders. That is part of nature’s cycle. Every creature has a special job and a slightly different way of making a living. Bees are more important than most since they perform vital ecosystem services including pollination and nutrient cycling. Today, however, many bees are in trouble. In the past 5-10 years, we’ve lost about one quarter of the managed honey bee colonies in the United States due to two parasitic mites, other diseases and pesticides.
People are shaping the earth to suit their own needs, while bees and other wildlife and plants suffer the consequences. Each day hundreds of acres are lost to land conversion or wild land habitats are chopped up into little islands in a sprawl of houses, shopping malls or huge farms. Often, there aren’t enough flowers, hiding places or nesting sites for bees to survive. Already in some countries, certain bees have become extinct. Pesticide use is steadily increasing and these manmade chemicals threaten bees and other pollinators by killing our weakening them while hurting people by poisoning our air, water and food.
What you can do to protect bees in your yard or garden
You can take some simple but effective steps to protect bees and other pollinators around your house and in your school garden. The first thing you should do is try to use insecticide sprays only when absolutely necessary. Learn about organic gardening. Often, when you don’t spray, the beneficial insects (like parasitic wasps) help combat any pests attacking your plants. Insecticides kill bees, which you need for producing the biggest and best-tasting fruits. You can often use soap solutions on aphids and whiteflies. If you have to spray, please so at night when bees are not active.
Keep bees and other pollinators around by having lots of types of flowers in bloom for as many spring and summer months as you can. Try to use native wildflowers, which are already adapted to your local climate and soils. They require less care and are less expensive to raise than showy modern hybrids. Modern hybrid varieties often do not have any pollen or nectar to feed floral visitors, so they can starve amidst a sea of flowers.
Protect And Create Bee Nesting Areas
You can create bee-friendly garden and yard areas by remembering that bees need water, flowers, nesting sites and sometimes other materials including mud, leaves and plant saps. If you have an old dead tree, or tree with a dead branch, try to save it. That dead tree or branch is a haven for bees and other wildlife. If the dead wood is full of small beetle holes, so much the better. Those holes will attract and house many kinds of native bees. Don’t burn the dead wood in your fireplace or you will be burning up your pollinators. Build or buy a bee house and hang it up on your garden shed or patio. Female native bees will find it during the nesting seasons. Pithy stems (including elderberry, rose and brambles) also provide nesting places for bees.
Explain About Pollinators to Family and Friends
You may want to explain to your family and friends just how important bees are to everyone on earth and how to go about protecting them.