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The ‘Burbs and Bees: Why It’s Important to Invest in the Bee Population

By Martha Michael

Investing in a Beehive

If you’re like a lot of Americans, you have a bear-shaped squeeze bottle in your cupboard and you reach for it when you spread peanut butter on bread or steep a hot cup of tea. Honey is a healthy substitute for sugar and a great complement to dishes from brie to salmon.

Though the sugary substance plays a supporting role in a lot of meal combinations, the bees that create it are key players in the food production process. Changes in the world are threatening the supply of honey bees but we can play a part in helping them survive.

Problems for Bees

According to the Honey Bee Health Coalition, one-third of the food we eat is dependent on the pollination services supplied by honey bees. But because their involvement in supporting the growth of a diverse range of natural resources is somewhat indirect, it’s easy to overlook their importance to the system. The organization’s website explains just how foundational bees are in maintaining the global ecosystem.

The Coalition is made up of:

  • Researchers
  • Beekeepers
  • Manufacturers
  • Growers
  • Agribusinesses
  • Government agencies

The health of the bee population affects the world’s food supply and the economy. The pollination work of bees contributes to billions of dollars in the U.S. and Canadian agriculture industries. We rely on their distribution of pollen for food security that has been threatened because of several factors diminishing the sustainability of bees.

  • Lack of nutrition - As development replaces natural spaces, the diet for bees becomes less varied, which leads to malnutrition
  • Pesticides - Crop protection, such as the use of pesticides, reduces the number of bees in pollination
  • Pests and disease - Viruses and natural predators destroy the bee population, including varroa mites and nosema, which are parasites that live in the digestive tract of bees
  • Human intervention - The selective breeding practices of leaders in hive management reduces the genetic diversity of bees

Helping Honey Bees Survive

You can help reverse the threatening bee crisis without leaving home. When you design your yard, choose foliage with a high level of nectar and pollen content that provides a habitat corridor for bees.

A website called Backyard Beekeeping lists the kinds of plants that attract bees and other wildlife such as hummingbirds and butterflies. It can be as simple as choosing the right colors; bees are most attracted to flowers that are blue, yellow, purple, or orange. While hummingbirds tend to pollinate red flowers with deep tubes, bees prefer short tubes or no tubes.

The most attractive forage is situated in full sunlight and is planted in a group. Trees are also good for bees; it’s where they get most of their nectar and there is plenty of nesting material provided by trees.

Some of the bees’ favorite plants, trees and flowers include:

  • Purple loosestrife
  • Basswoods
  • Sevenson flower
  • Holly bushes
  • Summersweet
  • Chinese chastetree
  • Blackberries and raspberries

Refraining from the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers will also help bees survive. Choose natural methods for protecting plant growth; whatever you use should be applied at night when bees are in nests.

Including a water feature in your yard is another way to serve the health of bees. A shallow birdbath or fountain can both attract and sustain bees. It’s especially important in hot regions where sometimes a honeycomb will melt in the hive.

“You need a supply of water so bees can bring it back and distribute it around in the hive,” retired Michigan State University entomology professor George Ayers says. “They then form groups and fan their wings to evaporate the water and cool the hive. The question to ask is if you don’t provide a good clean supply of water, where might they (get) it from?”

Becoming a Beekeeper

Wherever you live you can probably become a beekeeper. People who live in cities and suburbs are raising bees using urban beekeeping kits. According to an article on CompleteBeehives.com, rooftop gardening is a growing trend in areas such as New York City where colonies of Italian bees have hives at the top of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s building.

The advantage of urban beekeeping over operations in the countryside is that bees have access to a diverse range of plants across the city and they aren’t subjected to the pesticides used on crops in rural areas. It also gives residents of cities access to locally sourced honey.

The rules for becoming a beekeeper depend on each city’s ordinances, which you can access on local government websites. For instance, Los Angeles overturned a 136-year ban on urban beekeeping in 2015 joining San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., says an article by NPR. Regulations often address the number of hives you keep, the necessary size of your property, and the types of bees you can raise.

There are three types of hives typically used for urban beekeeping but the most common one for beginners is the Langstroth because the equipment is easy to access. It’s a rectangular shaped box with 8-10 frames where bees can build their comb.

If you prefer to reach out to someone else for a local honey supply, visit the Bee Culture Magazine website and type in your area.

Honey production does more than provide a spread -- it’s a process that affects the world’s food supply. When you give some thought to promoting the life of honey bees, the outcome may be sweeter than the fleeting taste of the condiment they produce.

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