Honey bees are far more important to people's everyday lives than most of us know. Aside from their obvious products of honey and beeswax it's also said that one in three bites of food we eat is reliant on their work as pollinators. The list of their culinary accomplishments include strawberries, coffee, almonds, apples and lemons to name a few. And while these fruits may be the product of their direct pollination work, it's also through their indirect work of pollinating vegetable flowers to create seed that we can be thankful for food such as carrots, cabbages and onions.
Yet honey bees around the world are disappearing from their hives at a worrying rate. The phenomena blamed for their demise has been called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) but having a name for the it doesn't mean that we know the exact cause. Fingers have been pointed at various factors which include lack of food varieties, inbreeding, stress from commercial pesticides, climate change, parasites and disease. Finding the culprit is an important endeavor for the scientists of today but if we wait for their findings before taking action it may be too late.
It may seem like an overwhelming problem but there are many important things that you can do as an individual to help save the honey bees. Simple decisions such as purchasing organic produce and local honey can make a huge impact as can planting plants and flowers that encourage honey-bee populations. Avoiding the use of household pesticides and herbicides is another way to ensure that your local bees aren't poisoned and telling friends and neighbours helps to spread the word. While governments and scientists debate on how we can save the bees you can already be out there making a difference.
While there are many ways to encourage honey bee populations, probably the most satisfying way is growing plants that produce nectar and pollen. By planting flowers attractive to bees you'll be sure to have immediate impact since you'll be able to see the bees hard at work in your garden. Honey bees fly up to 1.5 miles to collect food so even if you don't know of a hive in your immediate vicinity you can be sure that there will one further afield that will find your garden.
Knowing which plants and flowers are best for honey bees is probably the most confusing part in planning a garden for them. You'd initially think that it's big colourful and showy flowers to go for but these are usually the least appropriate. Flowers with a lot of petals present obstacles to bees getting in to collect food and these highly bred flowers sometimes lack the parts that actually produce nectar and pollen. Also, many modern flower varieties have been bred for their aesthetic qualities and often lack the right type of nectar or pollen. Tulips are a good example of this since older varieties produce pollen perfect for early spring foraging but most of the modern varieties produce pollen grains that are too large for honey bees to collect.
Wildflowers are one of the most important sources of year-round forage and by planting them you are encouraging a host of wildlife in addition to honey bees. Buying a good wild flower seed mix, such as this one from Thompson and Morgan, will ensure that the varieties that grow will be the right ones and that you'll have blossoms all year long. Vipers Bugloss, Meadowsweet, Field Poppies, Yarrow and Evening Primrose are some of the flowers you'll find in these mixes and though they aren't as flamboyant as conventional garden flowers they have their own special beauty and charm.
Since honey-bees forage in all seasons, the second most important thing to plan for is to have flowers available from March until November. This way food is on tap for them at any time in the year and the variety in types of nectar and pollen will help keep hives healthy and active. The added benefit to you and your family in planting this way is that it ensures beautiful flowers in your garden the year round. Food for the bees and lovely decoration for your home, what type of planting could beat that?
Winter and Early Spring:
Hazel, Crocus, Tansy, Daphne, Witch Hazel, Anemone, Willow, Dandelion, Ivy (Hedera helix), Gooseberry, Bluebell, Elm, Gorse, tulip-tree, Mahonia japonica, old species Tulips (modern varieties have pollen grains that are too large), Hellebore, Forget-me-knots
Raspberry, Blackberry, Tulip-tree, Oil-seed Rape, White Clover, Flowering Quince, Sweet Chestnut, Apple, Cherry, Black currant, Red currant, Autumn-sown Broad bean, Hawthorn, Sycamore, Comfrey, Kale, Crab apple, Rosemary
Viper’s Bugloss, Globe Thistle, Willowherb (Fireweed), Melissa Balm, Thyme, Heather, Sunflowers, Borage, Poppy, Rudbeckia, Lavender, Catnip, Mint, Sage, Coriander (Cilantro), Squash, Pot Marigolds, Foxglove, Geranium, Hollyhock, Clematis, Milkweed, Wild Rose, Spring-sown Broad bean, Oak (for Honeydew), Blackberry, Marjoram, White Byrony, Cornflower, Linden, Medicinal Valerian, Lacy Phacelia, Germander Speedwell, Gladiolus, Angelica, Single Dalias, Fennel, Delphinium
Aster, Goldenrod, Blackberry, Alliums (both garden varieties such as onion and garlic as well as ornamentals), Anemone, Chrysanthemum, Cosmos, Anise Hyssop, Viper's Bugloss, Mahonia Japonica, Hemp Agrimony, Lemon Verbena, Verbena Bonariensis, Ivy (Hedera helix), Hebe, Sedum Spectabile, Delphinium
In the end, supporting the future of bees means we're protecting a future for people and animals alike. Everyone and anyone can help stop the disappearance of these incredibly important creatures but both awareness and action are needed from a grassroots level up. Whether you become a beekeeper yourself, petition the government for protection of bees, buy organic or simply plant nectar and pollen-rich flowers, you'll be making a difference for both the world and for your community.