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This summer my daughter became fascinated with the buzzing in our front yard. For a few months a year, our drought resistant and mostly native yard is full of bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. It's just a small yard, but in a small way, I know it helps save the bees and butterflies in our neighborhood.
As my kids have gotten older, I've started talking to them about why animals and plants are important. My five-year-old daughter, always full of questions asked, “Mommy, why do we need bees?” My simple answer was, “We need bee's because they're pollinators. Pollinators help plants make new plants.” She seemed satisfied with that.
But her sweet question prompted me to do a bit of research on why honeybees are so important for our modern lives. Ever since the press started reporting on colony collapse disorder in the early 2000's bees have been symbols of the environmental movement. Since I use the bee as a symbol on this site, and a whole lot of them live in my yard, I figured I should learn more about them.
Why are honeybees important?
So here's a short answer to “Why are honeybee's important?” Honeybee's, in particular, are super-efficient pollinators. They’re responsible for pollinating one-third of our crops in the United States. Apples, berries, and nuts in particular. That adds up to $15 billion in US crop production each year (source).
The problem is, honeybees have been declining for years. Beekeepers usually expect to lose between 15% to 20% of hives each year, but they’ve been loosing closer to 33% for the last several years. The decline is probably caused by some combination of, “poor nutrition, pesticides, pathogens, and parasites,” according to Science News (source).
Help bees in your neighborhood
But the plight of the honeybee isn't hopeless. It turns out bees are thriving in cities more than in rural areas (source). Urban areas have more diverse flowers and plants, which keeps bees happy. Rural areas, on the other hand, are often dominated by a few crops that don’t allow bees to thrive. For example, almond orchards are highly dependent on “managed honeybees” for pollination. When they’re not being used to pollinate crops like almonds, they need more plant diversity and supplemental nutrition to stay healthy (source).
This is where you have an opportunity to help bees survive. Have you heard of pollinator-friendly gardens? They usually contain native flowers and different kinds of plants pollinators like bees, birds and monarchs depend on for food and nesting. Pollinator gardens also need to be free from pesticides and herbicides. Our drought-resistant yard has a least five different kinds of plant clusters native to California making it very buzzy and point of fascination for my little girl. Those bees also love our lavender, even though it's not a California native.
Plant a pollinator garden
Here are a few tips if you want to help pollinators like bees and monarch butterflies (source).
- Plant clusters of native plants. Here's a list of native pollinator-friendly plants for each region.
- Leave a cup of fresh water in your bee-friendly yard. Bees need water just like us. (Keep the water fresh! Stagnant water attracts mosquitoes.)
- Consider planting native milkweed* to help bees and monarch butterflies.
- Avoid pesticides and insecticides.
- Buy local honey
Plant native milkweed
Monarch butterflies need native milkweed to nest and eat. Bees like it too. So if you want to help monarch butterflies and bees, native milkweed is a good one, just be sure it's native to your region if you want to provide monarch butterflies with a safe place for their caterpillars to grow up on.
Native milkweed can be hard to find. There are a ton of different kinds of milkweed, so for the sake of simplicity, I condensed the list down to two types that are prevalent in a lot of regions in the United States.
Narrowleaf Milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis), also known as Mexican Whorled Milkweed – is native to most of California, Oregon, Washington, and the desert Southwest.
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is native in Central and Eastern USA.
My first experience with Milkweed was not great, but the second time around I figured it out. Use this seed finder in you're interested in native milkweed seeds. The first time I didn’t buy native milkweed (you’d think the local nursery would sell native milkweed, but they don't) and it ended up being suffocated by aphids. After giving up on my non-native milkweed I learned that you can get rid of aphids by washing them off gently with soapy water. Don't spray them with pesticides or you're hurting the bugs you're trying to help (I knew that you knew that!)
My second attempt at planting native Narrowleaf Milkweed was much more successful. This time I simply purchased seeds online, planted them in a big pot, and now I have native Narrowleaf Milkweed in the summer.
Our pollinator garden
Since I started this post with a story about my daughter in our garden, I'll also end it with a story about her.
One afternoon she decided that simply watching the bee's wasn't entertaining enough and became determined to catch one with her bare five-year-old hands. I told her if she caught one, it would sting her. She insisted her new bee friends would like her so much they would want to be her pet. Madeleine is stubborn, and her will to catch a bee was stronger than my desire to keep her from being stung. So I set her free in the garden to catch a friendly bee. (Don't worry, I had plenty of kids Benadryl on hand just in case she had an allergic reaction. I'm responsible like that.)
“I caught a bee,” she returned to the kitchen and announced with a straight face.
“The bee stung me,” she cried as her face crumpled in pain and tears.
I held her tight and held my tongue. Now she's back to watching the bee's from afar.
Updated May 31, 2020