Bees are in trouble, but we can help
As the Spring wildflower season draws to a close and less flowers are about, my mind is turning to bees.
My parents live on an urban Australian block typical of the seventies in Perth Western Australia, a small house on a relatively large bit of land. They have always had a highly productive, green garden with a lot of vegetables and fruit. Their place has always been an urban oasis for bees. However, in recent years they have had to start pollinating their own zucchinis and pumpkin. This year, many of their grapes have not set. Dad genuinely believes it’s caused by the absence of enough bees.
Moving to the country has made me much more aware of bees. For a start, there are many more. I live in an area that contains a combination of farms and smaller “lifestyle properties”. Given that these smaller properties are often natural bush, and largely not farmed, habitat for bees (particularly native varieties) are actively supported. Also, I share the immediate area with a couple of small commercial honey producers, so there are many hives within a walking distance. Honey bees travel up to about 5km from home. When a tree flowers in our yard, it becomes noticeably noisy - something I never noticed in suburbia. And I am grateful they’re here.
My son’s school has 5 different native bees as their “bee-haviour” mascots (see what they did there?). When I first saw these I was impressed at the diversity, until I learned that Australia has some 2000 of the world’s 20 000 native bee species. As excellent (and sometimes even more effective pollinators) the native guys should not be overlooked either.
You have probably heard the startling statistics of the decline of bees worldwide, particularly inthe honey bee population as that is what we monitor the most accurately. For example, the UK has suffered a 45% decrease in honey bees since 2010, the US 40%.
There is a growing realisation of the implications of bee decline on the human population. Without bees, human agriculture as we know it would collapse. Some 35% of our food relies on bee pollination and up to 75% of our food supply benefits in some way from it. Not only our food supply is tied to this, but also the economy associated with it. For instance, in Australia, our bees are linked to about 6 billion dollars worth of industry and out highest earning crops (coffee and cocoa) are bee dependant.
It appears that bee decline can be attributed to a number of factors including habitat destruction, intensive farming practices, climate change, pests and diseases. Luckily in Australia, our isolation has proved to our benefit. We are not seeing the same rates of decline as some of the major pests have not made it to our shores, but that really means we are just ahead of the curve as many of the other causes of bee decline are well and truly here. We can hopefully strategise to improve the odds our own losses reaching the same proportions.
What can humans do?
Neonicotinoids, the largest and most common family of pesticides used in agriculture have been identified as a major issue. The European Union has banned their use outside of greenhouses and there have been calls for other countries to do the same. Australia has so far resisted - and it does seem that there is other issues at play. In areas where these products have been banned, agricultural production has been affected more negatively by pests. Farmers have suffered and have even turned to alternatives which may end up being worse. As may be expected, the issue is not as simple as banning one type of pesticide. We have to look more broadly at developing more sustainable and environmentally sound methods of farming that address both bee conservation and pest management and still maintain production.
There are many pests and diseases that affect bees, including fungi and bacteria that can wreak havoc on populations that are stressed. Luckily Australia has less of these, and strict international biosecurity regulations to help with this. Regional and local biosecurity is also important. Apiarists need to be registered, educated and queens obtained correctly.
We are increasing our “bee deserts”. We dedicate vast areas of farmland to crops like grains, which do not provide food for bees. So whilst farm land may look appealing, much of it provides nothing for the bees. In urban areas, our trend towards big houses on small blocks means less garden habitat for bees. We need to find ways to support bee habitat through more sustainable farming practices and active planting.
What can we do at home, right now?
Don’t Just Buy A Beehive.
We can’t all be beekeepers. It is not the solution for all of us to go out and buy a hive full of bees. There is an ideal environment and correct ways to manage a hive and swarm correctly to ensure their health. Stressed hives are prone to illness, and weak, sick bees are not what we want in our population. If you wish to keep bees, get the appropriate equipment, registration and education and be prepared to look after them properly.
I aspire one day to have hives, but will wait until have the money and the knowledge to do it properly. Instead, you can host hives. In some areas, dependant on the size and location of your property, professional apiarists can use your property to house their hives. Generally they will offer some tiny in exchange for your space. We have hosted hives here in the colder months for a beekeeper from a colder location, to allow the bees to have a more temperate winter and more flowers than at their normal home. Other beekeepers may just like to add diversity to their flower supply. Most bee keepers require larger rural properties, but if you live in an urban area it may still be worth checking what your local beekeepers are looking for.
Stop Using Pesticides and Herbicides.
Consider the way you manage your own yard. Research the many bee-friendly solutions to pest and weed management.
Plant a Bee-Friendly Garden.
Whether you have a little balcony, a courtyard, a community plot, urban garden or rural sprawl…. go and plant something with flowers! Flowers are what bees need. Many articles abound online, but for those of us in Australia, the Government’s Rural Industries Research and Development Corporationhas put out a book that covers everything and a free PDF of it is available here: https://www.agrifutures.com.au/wp-content/uploads/publications/12-014.pdf
Plant Native Flowering Plants.
Support native bee and insect populations along with the honey bees by having plenty of flowering natives. Check our what is growing successfully in your area by peaking at your neighbour’s gardens and visit a local garden centre and ask about flowering options.
Support Local Beekeepers. Support your local beekeeper and their environmental efforts by buying their products. Keep the bees on your doorstep - literally. Try and buy directly from your local beekeepers or their chosen local outlet to allow money to go to a small business, but even if you’re going to buy honey at the supermarket, read the label and still buy honey produced as close to home as possible. It might be more expensive, but it will be supporting your local environment, and this sort of less-processed honey will taste better and have greater health benefits.
If you see a wild swarm, call an experienced swarm collector. They may be available via your local bee-keeping association or via the local council. Do not attempt to spray them or call pest control companies that will. A swarm can usually be safely relocated and rehomed. When we lived in the suburbs I’ve seen swarms at our local park, another in a hollow light pole nearby. They aren’t safe places for swarms, but the bees don’t need to be killed.
Build a native bee hotel.
If you provide flowers and a an easy access water source (make sure dishes left out for bees have a place to land and drink eg. stick a rock in your bird bath that pokes out of the water), you might be able to tempt native bees to stay with a bee hotel. There are many instructions online about how to build fun little “hotels” for native bees. Ours will fill any hole left available to them, often the screw holes in our timber outdoor setting, so an alternative is desirable. Here’s some ideas: https://www.aussiebee.com.au/bee-hotel-building-tips.html
In researching this piece, I read a lot of non-news, overstated statistics and questionable solutions to the increasingly popular bee issue. Whilst it’s great to have an environmental issue in the public eye, there will be inaccuracies that come with it. For example, a trend on Instagram showed people feeding bees sugar water. A sick bee may be revived with sugar water in an emergency, but please don’t regularly feed bees with sugar water. They don’t need that “junk food” any more than we do. If you want to feed bees, grow flowers.
Hopefully, we can make enough changes to ensure the health of our bee population for the future.