Researchers studying the decline of bee species in the Netherlands have discovered that bees disappear along with their native forage.
The research, published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was based on pollen samples taken from bees in museum collections. Trace samples of pollen stuck to long-dead bees were analyzed to determine which plants produced them. The information was compared to historical land-use records and bee population studies.
Sure enough, as land was converted to farming, industry, and housing, certain plants became scarce. As those plants disappeared, so did their pollinators. In the Netherlands, a highly developed country, nearly half of all native bee species are now endangered.
This study follows several other recent papers that suggest bee health is strongly influenced by the quality and diversity of dietary pollen, especially in the larval stages. Bees raised on inferior diets are less able to contend with disease and environmental stress. None of this should be a surprise: we know our own health and the health of our livestock and pets is directly related to proper nutrition, so why should bees be any different?
I was reading the Netherlands report when, by coincidence, the following comment from Donna in Kansas appeared in my in-box:
In the 50s, in north central Kansas, we had large colonies of what we called “ground bees.” On our farm, they dug their holes in the chicken yard which was right next to 120 acres of upland alfalfa. When wheat replaced alfalfa, the bees left.
Donna’s statement sums up in concrete terms what the studies tell us in the abstract: bees can’t make it without the right types of flowers.
Alfalfa provides pollen for a large diversity of bees. In fact, the last time I was at the Prosser experiment station, a graduate student at WSU was completing an inventory of the bee species found in the alfalfa seed fields of Touchet, WA. I got just a brief glimpse of her specimens, but dozens and dozens of species were represented.
Wheat on the other hand, provides nothing for bees. Donna’s bees were forced to leave when the alfalfa flowers disappeared, just as the many species of Dutch bees disappeared as their food supplies disappeared and the land was “improved.”
Many people believe that insecticides are the largest threat to bees. As significant as they are, I’m beginning to believe that loss of a proper diet is an even bigger threat. Without the building blocks for a vigorous immune system, all the other dangers in the environment—including the pesticides—become ever more perilous.
There is only so much any of us can do to fight pesticide abuse, but every single one of us can plant flowers. If we provide nourishing sustenance for the bees, we have taken the first step on a journey of recovery. We all live in different situations with different means, but whether we can plant a field or only a pot, we must do it. We must do it for them and for ourselves.
We’ve all seen certain flowers that were loaded with bees. Take a minute to answer the survey and let us know what flowers attract bees in your area. It doesn’t have to be a native species as long as bees—any bees—love it. When I get enough answers, I will post them here so other people know what to buy for their bees. Thank you for answering. Some bee, somewhere, will owe you!