Why We Love Bees

What is a bee’s favorite color?

Drum roll…

Blue! Bees love blue. They also love yellow. Hummingbirds love red, but to bees it looks black, so they’re much happier with blue, yellow, or even white flowers. This is because bees see in ultra violet. Their “primary” colors are blue, green, and ultra violet. Strange, but true. So, confronted with a blue flower, which looks great in ultra violet, and a red one, which looks black, the bee will use her two pairs of wings to head directly for the blue. Red flowers that need a bee to pollinate them will need a strong scent or interesting shape to interest a bee. So, if you’ve ever wondered why some flowers get lots of bees and others never do, this may “bee” the secret.

Photograph courtesy of David Cappaert, bugwood.org.

Those who dislike bees should plant only red flowers with no attractive scent. Perhaps readers will reconsider the importance and allure of bees as they need us as never before. For the first time in history, a bee was placed on the endangered list in this country. On February 10, the Rusty Patched Bumblebee was officially labeled as on its way to extinction.

Habitat destruction, non-native plant species, pesticides, disease, even drought have taken their toll on the Rusty Patched Bumblebee. They’re even worse off than the rest of the 4,000 species of native bees in the U.S. Bumbles are worse off than honeybees, despite never suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder of Honeybees (which basically is the cumulative result of most of the above Bumblebee dangers). The friendliest, most harmless, most amiable bee is in danger of extinction?

Bumblebees are amongst the most gentle of bees. Some report actually stroking these bees that are as just as soft as they look. The males completely lack stingers, and the females are nearly impossible to rile up to the point where they will sting. So, while these huge, aerodynamically impossible bees look scary, they are very nearly harmless. Happily enjoy watching these creatures. Try to figure out how they fly because physics declares they can’t, but they do.

Bumblebees are the bees you want if you like tomatoes, too. Tomatoes are difficult to pollinate, as they require a strong “buzzing” in front of the flower to release pollen. Most bees can’t do it, but to a Bumble, it’s easy. Other bees may follow the Bumble’s buzzing activity and get some pollen, too.

Residents don’t need a hive to attract lots of bees to a yard either. More than 70% of all bees are ground bees, and they’re great at pollinating our fruits and veggies. Some live in colonies in the soil, but it’s not really a hive, just a bunch of moms raising their kids together. If you find them in your yard, don’t be afraid. They’re not wasps. While wasps sometimes come right at you or your lunch, bees almost never do. Wasps are predators, and many eat pests in your yard, but bees are vegetarians. To tell wasps from bees, look at their waist. Wasps have very tiny waists like a Barbie doll, but bees don’t. Bees are usually pretty hairy, too.

Bees can take care of themselves, as long as you make your yard bee friendly. Pesticides and herbicides are unfriendly to bees. Most ground bees are simply delighted with a bare patch of ground that doesn’t flood easily. Bee-lieve it or not you don’t even need mulch. Mulch can actually be too heavy for a bee to move, particularly if it’s already in its nest in the ground. Just let the ground under a bush remain bare, or minimally mulched, best yet, plant a good native ground cover, and you may find some fabulous bees have discovered your kindness. You’ll be repaid over and over as they pollinate your veggies and flowers. It’s such a simple way to help save the planet.

All bees, in fact, are pollinators, and are declining in number. A U.N. study shows that 40% of the world’s pollinators are facing extinction. It’s rather scary, considering that more than 70% of our food depends upon pollinators. We need all the bees we can get.

So, if you see a bee, cheer her on, especially if you have allergies. Local honey is well known for reducing allergic symptoms, particularly in pollen season. It’s another good reason to love bees. The thought is that local honey contains much of the very pollen that causes the sneezes and runny noses, so acts to calm the immune system that over-reacts when confronted with the spring bonanza. All honey contains pollen – but we need the pollen that we face when we wake up in the spring to do the trick. So, as with so many other things, go local with honey. Fortunately, there are many local beekeepers keeping us honey enthusiasts supplied (thank you, honeybees).

We have many reasons to love bees. We love honey, flowers, vegetables and fruit. Bees give us these things. There are many other pollinators beyond the bees, but honeybees stand alone in their ability to provide, year after year, the things that so many of us adore.

What Can You Do To Save Bees?

First and foremost, DON’T fertilize or apply pesticides/herbicides to lawns or garden beds. These get up taken by all plants in the area, then will be present in the leaves and flowers of the plants. Neonicotinoids are infamous villains for bees. Avoid them at all costs!

ALLOW some bare patches of ground here and there. Ground bees may move in, and Mason bees, considered to be more productive pollinators than honeybees, use mud to make little nests for themselves.

Do your best to have all season bloom in your yard. Many bees hibernate (honeybees don’t), but all get busy in early spring. If you have the first flowers, you will help prevent the hungry bees from starving. Similarly, the late fall flowers feed bees preparing for a long, hard winter.

Plant blue, yellow and white flowers. Bees think they’re great (just let the clover grow and bloom in your lawn if you’re not fond of gardening as this, too, helps the bees).

Plant native species plants. Many cultivars and non-natives have flowers that puzzle bees, so while they’re fun for us to look at, bees can starve in a yard full of them. Many worry that cultivars are poor nutrition for bees, making native species plants another great way to help save the planet.

Want to know more? Contact your Extension Agent.

Talbot County • 410-822-1244

Dorchester County • 410-228-8800

Kent County • 410-778-1661

Queen Anne’s County • 410-758-0166

Caroline County • 410-479-4030

Maureen Rice is a Master Gardener in Talbot County. A lifelong naturalist, Ms. Rice enjoys writing and research when she’s not playing in the dirt.

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