They pollinate three fourths of the world’s flowering plants, helping trees and plants grow, which are vital for life on Earth.
Virtually all the fruits and veggies you enjoy, from apples to avocados, cashews to cabbages—even that Thanksgiving squash—have been pollinated by some form of animal life. Butterflies, bats, and hummingbirds are all vital pollinators, but bees are the most vital of all. They pollinate more than 130 food crops along with crops that livestock like cattle and goats depend on, and the plants wild animals need. Alfalfa, clover—even coconuts—are all pollinated by bees.
The UN puts it this way: Three out of four crops around the world producing our food depend largely on bees as pollinators. Friends of the Earth puts it this way: Bees pollinate one bite of every three we humans eat.
Now there’s some food for thought this Thanksgiving. As we munch away we can honestly say, thanks be to bees for our feasting. Then once we’re done, try these tips from two experts about what we can do in fall to show our gratitude and help these amazing creatures.
GET LACEY, AND LAZY
Lori Weidenhammer is an artist, educator and the author of Victory Gardens for Bees: A DIY Guide to Saving the Bees—the best resource ever on how to garden to help bees. (Check it out at your favourite public library, including Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton.)
Lori’s also an award-winning naturalist who co-created the iNaturalist BC Bee Tracker—another great bee resource, where she’s IDed 17,000-plus posts! So I was happy to talk with her about bees over-wintering, and how we can help them, given colony collapse, wildfires, drought and all the other challenges bees face, from climate change and more.
First, Lori points out that some bees over-winter as pupae and some as adults, depending on when the eggs are laid. Since 70 per cent of B.C.’s wild bees nest in the ground, “the more of your garden that you can just leave as natural, the better.”
“What I really advocate is to have some parts of your garden that are like infrastructure for bees,” she says. “For instance, there’s a community garden in Riley Park where we have a perennial garden around the whole border which we dig into as little as possible, in case bees are nesting under their favourite plants.”
Going “natural” also means don’t rake up everything or be too tidy. Leave dead leaves and plant material on the ground as much as possible—think of it as a “lacey garden.” Or even lazy! As for the 30 per cent of bees that are cavity- and stem-nesters, like mason and leafcutter bees, leave at least some nice strong stems sticking out. Stubble cut, Lori calls it. Some stems, like cut rose stems, might even have eggs or pupae already inside since bees lay eggs from early spring to first frost.
When it’s time, plant flowers that will bloom in succession, again, from early spring to late fall, starting with bulbs as Honza suggests, below. Also, try to plant at least one square metre of any one plant to give bees a critical mass. Lori’s bee-friendly favourites include snowberry and yarrow, both of which grow wild in Sea to Sky and produce lots of pollen. Asters and goldenrods are great, too. But whatever you plant for bees, water regularly. Plants stressed by drought don’t flower long.
YOU HAVE A DOG. HONZA HAS BEES
Honza Maly is a beekeeper and landscaper who manages about 50 bee colonies in the Sea to Sky through his appropriately named business, Mountain Bee. He even kept some colonies at higher elevations this summer to gather fireweed honey, one of the best.
They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and that applies to beekeepers, too. Honza first started keeping bees as a boy growing up in the charming 13th-century Czech village of Háj ve Slezsku, where his grandfather was a big beekeeper. So being thankful for bees is second nature for him.
“I am absolutely grateful to have bees around me. I see them more than insects,” Honza says from Pemberton, where he lives with his family. “Someone has a dog, I have bees.
“For me, it’s so calming to work with bees. It’s always a puzzle I have to solve… and at the same time, it’s very rewarding to see them flying and buzzing around. I’m so grateful just to be around, and I can work with them.”
Honza says that we can still see bees now, as long as daytime temperatures are 10 C or higher. If it’s not too stormy or rainy, his honeybees will forage for pollen and nectar, even in the rain. Then when things get too cold, they huddle together inside the hive, eating honey or the sugar supplement he provides to keep warm.
As for helping bees over-winter, he totally agrees with Lori’s gardening tips, and adds this: If you’ve seen bees flying out of your potted plants or certain areas of your yard, like along a walkway or your kids’ sandbox, they might be wintering there. Bees like aerated or sandy soil, and they might have already started building a nest there. So don’t tip the soil out of your pots or disturb those areas. (We had bumblebees overwinter several years at the crumbly base of the old brick chimney on our patio.)
As for bee-friendly plants, Honza recommends bulbs like crocuses and tulips that provide nectar and pollen so vital in early spring when bee populations are growing and they need to build their strength. Willows are another top early pollen-producer, provided you don’t cut all the pussy willows. The long, dangling catkins that form later contain the critical nectar and pollen bees love.
As for my bee tip, it’s this: If you haven’t tried some already, contact Honza on social media at Mountain Bee Pemberton for some of his beautiful honey. I bet you’ll find a way to enjoy it, at Thanksgiving and bee-yond.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who watches the birds and the bees