“How did I get myself into this? What am I doing?” my mind kept asking. Nervously, I glanced in the rear view mirror of my SUV and my fears were confirmed.
My foot pressed down hard on the accelerator. If only I could make it home, I would be safe. I opened all the windows and let the air stream past my face.
Pulling into the driveway, I put the vehicle into park and scrambled out as fast as I could, slamming the door behind me. Panting, I walked in circles until my heart rate dropped down to a somewhat normal level.
I mustered up the courage to peer into the back of the vehicle and there I saw them… bees. In my backseat. Lots of bees. I had managed to bring them home with me and not get stung. Now what?
My Crash Course in Beekeeping
When we moved to our farm 5 years ago, I somehow got it in my head that I wanted to become a beekeeper. Over the years, I had been reading news articles about the plight of the honeybee and how their numbers are diminishing due to a variety of factors, most famously CCD or Colony Collapse Disorder. I desperately wanted to help the honeybees and figured the best solution was to get my own bees.
So I talked with the man we purchased our raw honey from. He kindly agreed to sell me a few colonies (sometimes people use the term “hive,” as only one colony lives in each hive) and give me some instruction on how to handle them.
By instruction, I mean I drove my car up to the nearest hive and observed from the safety of the vehicle while he suited up and opened the hive, pulling out “frames” and showing me through the car window what the inner workings of the hive should look like. I could feel both fear and fascination rising up inside me. I couldn’t imagine myself having the courage to do what he was doing… yet, I so badly wanted try it, to immerse myself in the mysterious and magical world of bees.
And this is how I found myself driving home with 2 honeybee colonies in my backseat… and of course the little hole we plugged to keep them contained somehow came un-plugged, and I was left trying not to freak out while driving 60 miles an hour with a small cloud of bees buzzing around in my vehicle! Eeeek!
This post is sponsored by Fiskars®.
You Don’t Have to Become a Beekeeper to Help the Bee Population
So what can we learn from Lori’s mishap, friends?
- When transporting bees, make sure the container is sealed TIGHTLY!
- One should probably do a little more research and get some hands-on experience before jumping into beekeeping. Seriously. It was pretty foolish of me to just jump in like that with no training. If you are at ALL interested in beekeeping, you should definitely get in contact with your local beekeeping organization. There will be lots of eager, excited folks ready to help you along the way.
- Repeat after me: You don’t have to become a beekeeper in order to help the bee population.
When we talk about bees, usually the honey bee is the first insect that comes to mind, but did you know that the honey bee is actually not native to North America? There are actually hundreds of different types of native bees in North America. These native bees do not produce honey, but they are valuable for their pollinating services and deserve our support.
Little did I know at the time that there are countless ways average, normal, non-beekeeping people (because, let’s face it – you have to be a little bit crazy to willingly enter into a swarming cloud of insects that can sting you!) can make BIG positive changes that will benefit the whole bee population (honey bees and native bees).
I’m excited to share these ideas with you, and I hope you and your family are able to adopt a few of these concepts!
Why Should We Care About Bugs Anyway?
Imagine a world without fruit. No apples, no cherries, no peaches. No strawberries, no blueberries, no raspberries. No tomatoes, no bell peppers, no cucumbers. No peas, no beans, no squash.
Would you want to live in this world? I wouldn’t.
All of these plants produce flowers, and it’s estimated that 75%-95% of all flower plants need to be pollinated to “bear fruit.” It’s also been estimated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that pollinators (which includes honeybees, native bees, wasps, hornets, flies, butterflies, hummingbirds, bats, etc.) are responsible for pollinating up to 75% of the crops humans grow…including chocolate.
And coffee. Who knew?!?
If that alone isn’t reason enough for us to take the health of pollinators seriously, I don’t know what is!
Have you ever considered the economic impact of pollinators? Check this out!
According to a statement made by the White House, from the Office of the Press Secretary:
- Insect pollination is integral to food security in the United States. Honey bees enable the production of at least 90 commercially grown crops in North America. Globally, 87 of the leading 115 food crops evaluated are dependent on animal pollinators, contributing 35% of global food production.
- Pollinators contribute more than 24 billion dollars to the United States economy, of which honey bees account for more than 15 billion dollars through their vital role in keeping fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diets.
- Native wild pollinators, such as bumble bees and alfalfa leafcutter bees, also contribute substantially to the domestic economy. In 2009, the crop benefits from native insect pollination in the United States were valued at more than 9 billion dollars.
Huh. Turns out, pollinators are a pretty big deal. And we lost 44% of honeybees in the last year!
Small Changes Can Have a Big Impact
The bad news: Pollinators around the world on are a decline, for a variety of reasons – pesticide exposure, environmental degradation, habitat loss and new diseases.
The good news: YOU can do something to help, even if you don’t own a single square inch of land.
The consequences of our actions and choices are far reaching and can have a positive or negative impact of the rest of the globe.
Let’s explore a few ways we can contribute positively and make choices that will ensure that pollinators are around when our great-grandchildren are walking this earth.
7 Ways to Help the Bees (and other pollinators)
1. Stop Using Pesticides
Did you know that according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, homeowners use 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns/landscaping than farmer use per acre on their crops??? Yikes. It’s time to stop blaming agriculture for excessive pesticide use and start looking critically at our own use.
Put the bottle down. Please. Consider before you spray.
Pesticides do not distinguish between the two categories of “pest” insects and “beneficial” insects. Yes, that’s right, insects are beneficial in your landscaping and garden! In fact, the majority of the insect population is beneficial.
When you spray to kill the “bad guys,” you are also killing the “good guys” that are helping to control the bad guys. Guess what? The bad guys usually have a shorter life cycle, so they will just come back again faster… and you just wiped out all the good guys that keep them in check. They now are free to run rampant.
Using pesticides creates a vicious cycle where you end up needed to use more and spray more often.
Since we have honey bees on our premises, we never use any sort of pesticide. Unfortunately, we are surrounded by farm fields and end up with “pesticide drift” on our property when those fields are sprayed. Major bummer, but there is nothing we can do about it, except keep spreading the word about protecting pollinators.
If you absolutely MUST use a pesticide, please follow these guidelines from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
- only use it when you have a pest problem (not as a preventative)
- choose one that is effective for the target pest and the least toxic to non-pest species
- choose one that does not persist on vegetation
- use the lowest effective application rate
- avoid applying when wildflowers are in bloom
- apply it in the late afternoon or evening when most pollinators are not as active
- target your application where needed (e.g., use a hand sprayer, rather than aerial applications)
- use liquid sprays or granules, rather than dusts, to avoid it drifting to other plants
- do not spray when it is windy
- avoid microencapsulated formulations as they can be mistaken for pollen by pollinators
- do not apply near water, or sensitive species or sensitive habitats
- always read and follow label directions carefully
- rinse pesticide tanks after each use to avoid cross-contamination of pesticides
- notify nearby beekeepers several days before using products harmful to honeybees
2. Know Where Your Food Comes From and HOW It Is Grown
Let me be the first to say that the USDA Organics program in this country is far from perfect. Organics have passionate followers and dissenters. I’m not going to argue that Organic is superior or convince you your family is going to die if you don’t eat Organic.
However, I DO encourage you to spend some time figuring out where your food comes from – who grows it? How do they grow it? Are they spraying pesticides on the crop? What are they doing to make sure their growing practices are supporting pollinators, instead of damaging them?
These are questions that can rarely be answered at a supermarket. Instead, perhaps you buy some of your food at a local farmers market, farm or orchard. Perhaps you buy your food directly from the source and ask the grower these questions, in person.
Be kind and understanding, yet make it clear you are seeking food produced in ways that don’t harm pollinators (and what’s good for pollinators is good for people too!). If enough people makes their wishes known directly to farmers, we will see big changes in the way food is produced. It’s happening already!
3. Embrace Permaculture Principles
Stick with me here. If you have never heard of Permaculture, I want to introduce you to an amazing concept!
According to the website Permaculture Principles:
“Permaculture is a creative design process based on whole-systems thinking informed by ethics and design principles that feature on this site.
This approach guides us to mimic the patterns and relationships we can find in nature and can be applied to all aspects of human habitation, from agriculture to ecological building, from appropriate technology to education and even economics.
By adopting the ethics and applying these principles in our daily life we can make the transition from being dependent consumers to becoming responsible producers. This journey builds skills and resilience at home and in our local communities that will help us prepare for an uncertain future with less available energy.“
Ok, that’s a lot of flowery words. Still confused?
Here is my quick translation: Making intentional choices to create spaces that are mutually beneficial to humans, plants, animals, and the environment.
Example: Let’s look at two imaginary houses and see the Permaculture Principles at work.
The first house has an expansive perfect green lawn, with a few landscape shrubs. The lawn is fertilized (with synthetics that run off into the water system), sprayed with herbicide to kill any weeds that would dare peek their heads up, sprayed with grub control (that kills all the earth worms), and mowed religiously, which requires fossil fuels to run the lawn mower for hours each week. Oh, don’t forget the automatic water sprinklers to keep the lawn bright green even during a drought. The yard benefits no one and produces no food – nothing for humans, nothing for birds (all the worms are dead), nothing for the insects to eat/pollinate. Even worse, the fossil fuels, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides damage the environment. The people who live here must drive (more fossil fuel!) to obtain all their food.
The second house also has a beautiful lawn, but it is small and functional. The family uses it daily to play or relax and makes the most of the space. They use a push-reel mower to keep the lawn tidy. Most of the yard is consumed by trees (apple, peach, pear), flowering bushes (blueberry, blackberry, raspberry), perennial plants (asparagus, rhubarb, strawberry)and annual plants (vegetable garden). The apple tree on the south side of the house provides food for pollinators in the spring, shades the house in the heat of the summer (reducing the need for air conditioning), bears fruit in the fall for the humans, wildlife and insects, and in the winter provides a sheltered place for animals, birds and insects. Weeds that grow in the lawn are used for food and medicine (dandelions, plantain, purslane).
Since most of the landscape plants chosen are drought-hardy natives, little to no watering is necessary. The perennial and annual plants provide abundant food for the humans, birds, local wildlife and insects. Everywhere you look, there are hummingbird feeders, bird baths, bat houses, mason bee houses, all sorts of little nooks and crannies that create a diverse habitat. The yard is teeming with life, abuzz with pollinators. The people who live here can walk into their backyard and find at least part of their dinner.
Where would you like to live? The barren wasteland landscape that supports no life? Or the landscape that is full of life, food and biodiversity?
Permaculture is all about making the world a beautiful, better place where ALL of the earth’s inhabitants can thrive. We had a great guest post on more Permaculture tips this winter!
Converting your landscape/yard using Permaculture Principles can seem overwhelming at first, but it helps to frame every choice by asking:
Who/what does this benefit? How?
Is there any payoff from this choice or will it just cause us pointless work, that actually damages people, animals and the environment?
Is this choice sustainable in the long run? What will happen when oil prices skyrocket?
Full disclosure: When we bought our farm, it resembled the first house – huge lawn (2 acres!) with just a few decorative plants. We’re slowly transforming our land into a “Permaculture Paradise“, but it’s definitely a work in progress! We’re very motivated by the fact that we are quickly approaching a time in history where it will be absolutely ludicrous to waste precious fossil fuel on something as unproductive as a lawn.
4. Rethink Your Relationship with Insects
Pesticide companies have done a wonderful job of convincing us that insects are “bad” and that we should do everything in our power to eliminate them. As a result, most of us respond to insects with fear, disgust, revulsion and sometimes even anger (“I’m going to kill all those pesky buggers!”).
However, as we have seen, this is not necessarily true – insects are not always “bad”. The majority of insects are actually beneficial to human!
If we set aside our fear and disgust, and took the time to get down on their level, perhaps we could begin to see how truly amazing insects are… and even begin to show them a little respect. After all, we could not survive without them.
Repeat after me: Insects are our allies, not our enemies!
Of course, there are some insects I could do without (mosquitoes come to mind!), but I trust that God has created incredibly complex ecosystems in which each living creature plays a vital role. How arrogant of us to think that humans know what is best for the world. How silly of us to think we can just wipe out one part of that ecosystem and not have to deal with the consequences. How ridiculous of us to try to control and “conquer” nature.
Enough of this “Man vs. Nature” nonsense. Humans ARE part of nature and every time we harm nature, we harm humans too. The current dismal state of our planet (pollution, toxic water supplies, plastic in the oceans, depleted ozone, disappearing habitats… need we go on?) is proof of our inability to grasp this concept and operate with a long-term perspective. We must change, and changing our view on insects is a simple place to start.
There are many ways we can deter pest insects with harming the beneficial ones. I highly recommend the book The Wildlife -Friendly Vegetable Gardener by Tammi Hartung for many wonderful tips and ideas on how we can live in harmony with insects (and other creatures). It’s unlike any other gardening book I have ever read… and I have read dozens of them. Be sure to check it out!
5. Be Lazier
I think this is a tip we can all embrace!
Here are a few “lazy” ideas that can benefit pollinators:
- Is there an unused corner of your yard? Instead of mowing, why not let it go? Sprinkle wildflower seeds and let that area grow “wild”, creating a safe haven and food source for pollinators.
- Do you need a lawn at all? Maybe you could convert it all to flowering trees, bushes and perennials. Yes, it’s a lot of work up front, but think of all the time, money and resources you will save not having to mow.
- Stop spraying the weeds in your lawn – it will save you time and money (and help the environment). Who decided that dandelions, clover and other “weeds” are an eyesore? These are all plants that look beautiful (in my opinion! I think mono-culture plain green lawns are boooooooring) and provide a wonderful food source for pollinators…and sometimes even humans! If you simply cannot stand the weeds, use a weeding tool to manually remove the weeds at their roots. It’s very effective and safe. Try using the Fiskars® DuraFrame Weeder.
- Let your vegetable plants live in the garden once they have “bolted” or gone to flowering. For example, overgrown broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, basil, cilantro and thyme will eventually flower in the fall. Most other flowers are finishing up for the season, so these provide valuable food sources for pollinators.
6. Invite Bees Into Your Yard
Bees need all the things that we need – food, water, and shelter. You can invite them to your yard by providing them with these essentials! In return, they will increase your flower, fruit and vegetable yields.
FOOD: Plant lots of flowers and flowering vegetable plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, basil, chives, snap beans and peas.
WATER: If you don’t have a bird bath, consider buying one. Or you could set out shallow dishes of water near/around your garden area. Be sure to change the water regularly to prevent mosquito larva problems. It’s also helpful to float a few sticks or wine bottle corks (Finally! A purpose for all those corks! Ha!) in the water, so the bees don’t fall in the water and drown. I check the bowls daily and rescue any bees that I find swimming.
SHELTER: If you are not up for keeping honey bees on your property, you are still in luck! There is a type of native bee called the Mason Bee that would love to live near your garden, if you provide them a home. They are small, docile, resemble flies and… they don’t sting! (Not that stinging is a big issue -we’ve had honey bees for 5 years now and only 3 stings, all because we stepped on them or accidentally slapped them. Honey bees are also incredibly docile.)
I’ve been seeing “Mason Bee Homes” all over lately, as more and more people are interested in helping bees. You can find one on-line or search your local stores (I found mine at ALDI for $10!). If you are handy you can create Mason Bee homes simply by drilling holes in a block of wood or by stacking short lengths of cut bamboo poles.
Inviting Mason Bees to your garden is a wise move, since it takes 100 honey bees to do the pollination work of 1 Mason Bee! They are Pollinator Pros!
7. Plant A Garden!
I’ve touched on this in the other points, but by far, the best thing you can do to help the bees is to plant a garden.
When you take that step to plant a garden (flowers, vegetables, fruits), you are entering into a beautiful relationship with the rest of the natural world. You will become more in tune and sensitive to the workings of nature and hopefully, it will increase your wonder and respect for all living things.
Gardening involves a lot of trial and error. You need to know up front that you WILL fail. Over and over again. Don’t despair or give up! This is how we learn! Each mistake or failure leads us one step closer to success.
If you have never gardened before, there are a few tools of the trade you should pick up to increase your success. Of course, there are all sorts of fun gardening gadgets, but I consider these the essential:
- Trowel – A small handheld shovel or spade for digging planting holes
- Hand Cultivator – A handheld little rake or “claw” for weeding or evening out soil
- Spade – A large shovel for turn over soil, removing grass or digging large holes
- Pruner – A tool used to clip, trim and prune trees, shrubs and plants
- Garden Snips – A small tool used to harvest herbs, cut flowers, and other miscellaneous jobs
The Pruner and Garden Snips will mostly likely be the biggest ticket items, so be sure to purchase tools that will last for a long time. After years of working with cheap tools that rust, break and need to be replaced every year, I switched to Fiskars® brand garden tools. The tools are easy to purchase in my area (at Meijer, local home improvement stores and farm supply stores) and I know they are a dependable brand. I’ve been happily using Fiskars® scissors for household duties for years and I’m pleased to discover their gardening tools are just as reliable and user-friendly. They also come with a Full Lifetime Warranty. How cool is that?!
I use the Fiskars® PowerGear2 Pruner for all my pruning jobs around our farm – pruning fruit trees, pruning grapevines, pruning raspberry and blackberry bushes and pruning shrubs/woody herbaceous plants. The PowerGear2 Pruner easily cuts through branches/stems up to 3/4″ in diameter. It has a unique design that makes cutting through tough branches nearly effortless. No more panting, clenching and squeezing, with my hand cramping up, trying to get through branches! It’s especially “handy” for folks with arthritis or poor hand strength.
Fiskars® Garden Multi-Snip (“Cut Slice Saw Snip” – it cuts/snips, but also has a knife blade and a saw blade) is my favorite tool when working in the garden or on the farm. It comes with a sheath, which I clip on my pants so it’s always in reach. It’s great for all sorts of garden-related tasks, such as clipping herbs, cutting twine, deadheading flowers and harvesting vegetables.
I also use it for clipping wing feathers off pesky flying chickens and trimming goat hooves (Yes, I clean it between uses!). Every gardener or homesteader should have one of these (just be sure to keep them out of the reach of children, as the blades are sharp). It’s truly a multi-tasking tool! Honestly, I don’t know how I lived without these Snips!
Once you have your tools and have prepared a spot (or some large pots. You don’t have to own any land to garden!), you are ready to start gardening! No matter what kind of garden you are planting, be sure to do a little research and plant varieties that will attract pollinators. There are all sorts of great websites (such as this one) and books that can guide you in choosing what plants are right for your area, before you head to the garden center to pick out your flowers, herbs and veggies.
After reading several books about gardening and pollinating, I enthusiastically recommend checking out Pollinator Friendly Gardening by Rhonda Fleming Hayes. The book is filled with handy charts and lists of specific plants, shrubs and trees that will attract all sorts of pollinators whether you are planting a food garden or landscaping your house. We are in the process of planning new landscaping and the charts have been incredibly helpful. I plan on buying a copy of my own to keep as a valuable reference!
Here are a few suggestions of food bearing plants that will feed you AND the pollinators:
- Borage (bees ADORE this flowering plant!)
- Snap beans
- Sunflowers (pollen for bees and seeds for you… or the birds!)
Which Step Will You Choose?
As you can see, there are multiple ways YOU can help the bee and pollinator population. Instead of focusing on all the bad news, let’s be “glass half full” people and embrace the changes that are possible for us.
Let’s share our enthusiasm and excitement about pollinators and start a new era in which we recognize our dependence on these tiny, amazing creature!
This post is sponsored by Fiskars®. Products were provided for review but all opinions are Lori’s own (and she was already a Fiskars® customer!).