It would be easy to leave the fight for the honeybees to scientists who seek to discover what factors are causing declining populations. In a perfect world, there would be one cause with an easy fix, but the issue of declining bee populations is in fact a complicated one. Considering 75% of the world’s food depends on pollinators, regular folk like us can likely lend a hand to help the honeybees get back on their feet in ways that are simple and fun as well as beneficial for our favorite pollinators.
One way is to limit or discontinue use of synthetic pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides. They’re known to be harmful and can reduce bees’ foraging, navigating abilities, fecundity, reproductive success, and impair development as well as being potentially lethal, says Jessa Kay Cruz, a pollinator conservation specialist. “Limit [them] not just for bees but all insects in your yard…The vast majority of insects are beneficial or at least benign—very few are truly problematic.” Another way to help is to lean more toward single petal plants than multi-petal plants when planting because single petal pollen and nectar are more accessible. It’s also better to use non-hybrid plants because breeding for fancy blooms reduces pollen, says Cruz.
It also helps to “think like a bee,” according to Cruz, by enticing them with their “favorite” sources of pollen and nectar. The best choices are “native, since our native bees evolved with these plants and are pre-programmed to prefer them,” Cruz says. Plant in groups rather than one or two a time, with at least three feet of single species being best. As well, keep bee-friendly plants in one area, not scattered about. “When bees forage, they like to visit the same plant in order to get the rewards they’re seeking.” If those plants are in one big patch, bees have to search far less. Also, use successive blooms season-round, since honeybees can forage all year to build up their honey stores.
It’s good to remember honeybees have great color vision, with a spectrum much like ours, but they shift more toward ultraviolet. “This means they find it hard to see red; to them, it’s in the same wavelength as green. Imagine trying to find flowers among foliage if they are all the same color,” says Cruz. Yellow, white, violet, purple, and blue are all good colors for flowers, though bees reportedly love Salvia (red flowers) as well. Also, let bees settle as they wish if their nest isn’t causing problems—for instance, leave patches of bare or partially bare, undisturbed, and un-tilled soil without mulch to help underground bees. For wood-and-stem nesting bees, leave piles of branches, hollow reeds, or nesting blocks made of untreated wood (avoid composite materials as they’ll disintegrate in rain).
Last but not least: honeybees need water to drink, so providing a source of water helps bees remain longer in your yard, with Mason bees also using water to mix with dirt to create mud for their nests. Place the water near bee-friendly plants in a shallow bird bath with rocks that bees can land on, or use a shallow dish with pebbles, marbles, sea glass, or cork tops. Change water out daily, as mosquitoes will breed and lay their eggs in there.