It is easy to take the humble bee for granted. Recent headlines detailing the rapid decline of several bee species have made many of us think twice about these stripy little critters. Bees are more than just the chubby cousin of the dreaded wasp. Various species of bee are responsible for pollinating our plants and flowers. Also, a large percentage of the food we eat is dependent on these little creatures.

Why do bees matter?

We all know that bees make honey, but their role in the food chain goes far beyond just making this delicious nectar. Bees are expert pollinators and therefore play a crucial role in producing much of the food that ends up on our dinner plates.

Bees are the cheapest and most efficient method of pollinating many crops. Those crops include tomatoes, apples, strawberries, and peas. In this capacity, it is estimated that bees contribute over $15 billion to the US economy every year. If bee numbers continue to decline and plants need to be pollinated by other means, the cost of food is likely to increase substantially.

Why are bees in decline?

America’s wildflower meadows are the perfect habitat for bees. They provide long grass for shelter and plenty of all-important pollen. The problem is that since the 1930s, an estimated 97% of this habitat has been lost due to the increased demand for food production. Quite simply these rich and diverse habitats have been destroyed in favor of crop production and grazing pasture for animals.

Some researchers and scientists believe much of the decline in bee population may be due to the heavy use of pesticides in modern farming. The group of insecticides called neonicotinoids is used to control a variety of pests, such as aphids, grubs, and weevils. Although they are extremely effective as a pest control method, research suggests they may also be causing serious harm. Research is ongoing and the debate surrounding neonicotinoids looks set to run and run.

What can I do to help?

The best way to help the bumblebee is to make your garden as bee-friendly as possible so they have a safe-haven in which to live. If you are lucky enough to have a large garden, the easiest way to create an enticing habitat for bees is to simply let a small portion of your land become ‘wild’. Neglecting a patch of land means the long grass will provide shelter for the bees and over time native wildflower species will bed down roots, giving the bees the pollen they so desperately need.

If you are working within a more limited space, planting some bee-friendly plants in your garden is just as effective. Many garden centers sell packets of seeds marked “bee friendly” and increasingly plant retailers are highlighting those species which are good for attracting bees.

Like many creatures, bees need somewhere they can call home. To create a bee house, simply cut a hollow bamboo cane into 20cm lengths and tie the sections together into a bundle. Position your bundle of canes in a sheltered position around one meter off the floor and within close proximity to garden flowers. Make sure your bee hotel is in position for the end of summer and you may be lucky enough to get solitary bees laying their eggs in the tubes. If you notice one or more of the canes sealed over with leaves, mud, or other material, keep an eye out for baby bumblebees emerging from the tubes the following spring.

Encouraging bees into your garden is affordable, easy, and very rewarding indeed. By being more bee-friendly in our approach to gardening we can all make a small, positive difference to the humble bumblebee and ensure these important little species stay around for generations to come.