Bees play a critical role in our lives. Bees and other animals that spread pollen, or pollinators, are essential for producing more than one-third of U.S. food products, worth nearly $20 billion each year. They are also necessary for diverse ecosystems and support over 85 percent of the world’s flowering plants.
August 18 is National Honey Bee Day, according to an official proclamation by the Department of Agriculture. It’s a good day to focus on the importance of bees and what we can do to protect them.
For more than a decade, bee keepers have observed losses of significant numbers of hives. The troubling decline of bees is thought to have multiple causes, including parasites, climate change, shrinking food sources and pesticide use.
The most widely used pesticides in the world are neonicotinoids, or neonics. They are used to coat corn and soybean seeds before planting and sprayed on other fruits and vegetables during the growing season where bees and other pollinators can be exposed.
Last year, in the largest field study of the effects of neonics on honeybees and wild bees, scientists from the United Kingdom, Hungary and Germany reported that neonics harm bee colonies, especially when bees have nothing to feed on other than crops treated with synthetic pesticides. These pesticides have also been found in samples of honey from around the world.
To protect pollinators, the European Union recently banned the outdoor use of three neonics, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is dragging its feet, delaying until next year a review of neonics and the risk they pose to bees and other pollinators. The EPA has not restricted any previously approved uses of neonics, but has temporarily halted the approval of new outdoor uses until the risk assessments are complete.
The Home Depot has committed to stop selling neonic-treated plants by the end of this year and Lowe’s will phase out their use by 2019. According to Greenhouse Grower’s 2016 survey, most growers who supply home stores are moving away from neonics.
What can you do to protect honey bees and pollinators?
- Plant a garden! You can support food sources for bees by planting native flowers in your back yard. Even a window box can provide a food source for bees. You will also support other types of pollinators including butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and beetles. Find tips for creating a bee-friendly garden here and here.
- Do not use pesticides around your home or in your yard.
- Participate in citizen science programs. The Xerces Society and other organizations track North American bumble bees through the Bumble Bee Watch project. The Great Sunflower Project invites people from all across the US to collect data on pollinators that visit plants in their gardens, parks or schools. See more citizen science projects here.