Bees need quality habitat to survive

The European Union’s restriction on the use of neonicotinoids and the joint USDA/EPA report of a continued decline in honey bees reminds us of the on-going issues with pollinator health.

Specifically, the decline of honey bee populations is reaching a breaking point for pollinated crops in the United States.

In an article published in “Wired” magazine this year, entomologist Dennis vanEngelstorp from the University of Maryland noted, “We’re getting closer and closer to the point where we don’t have enough bees in this country to meet pollination demands.”

Although the factors thought to be causing this decline are many, there are some simple things we can do to help conserve bees. All bees share some basic needs — something to eat and a place to live.

As noted in the USDA/EPA report, the habitat that is available to bees in the United States is shrinking and declining in quality.

To reverse this trend, several universities, including Iowa State University, are investigating how to get more high-quality habitat in our landscape.Image

Providing bees food

Midwest researchers have focused on native plants as a food source for bees and other beneficial insects. These plants include flowering perennials commonly found in prairies.

At Michigan State University, Doug Landis is leading a team to study which of these plants and plant mixtures is most attractive to beneficial insects and least attractive to pest insects.

Their research is summarized on a website ( that rates plant attractiveness and gives recommendations for growing them. Also, a chart showing when these plants bloom is included.

They recommend selecting a combination of plants that provide flowers from spring to fall so bees have a constant source of nectar and pollen.

At Iowa State University, we investigated if the MSU recommendation would be more attractive to beneficial insects than other plants commonly found in the Iowa.

We created a mix of plants from the list provided by MSU that were rated the most attractive to beneficial insects. The mix was constructed of 12 plants that provided a habitat that flowered throughout the growing season.

With funding from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, we observed during a two-year study the “best-bet mix” attracted more bees than single-plant species (e.g., corn, switch grass, alfalfa or willow) and a mix of prairie plants currently recommended for reconstructing prairie.

Furthermore, if the plant mixture was reduced to two species, such as cup plant and golden alexanders, it still out-performed most single-plant treatments.

Providing bees a place to live

Bees also need a place to live. For honey bees, this is usually a hive box provided by a beekeeper. But, honey bees are only one of the nearly thousands of bees found in North America.

Most of these bees are not social and build nests alone. Depending upon the species, these nests can be found in the ground or in living or dead plants.

Creating nesting habitat for bees can include providing undisturbed soil to building “bee hotels” that offer material like stems, drinking straws and wood blocks with holes.

The Xerces Society, a private group focused on pollinator conservation, has several fact sheets for how best to provide nesting habitat for ground- nesting and stem-nesting bees. Included in these recommendations are guides for building artificial nests.

Reducing harm from insecticides

After providing food and nesting habitat, beekeepers can take an extra step to reduce the impact of insecticides.

Andrew Joseph, the Iowa agdepartment’s honey bee expert, maintains a registry of honey bee hives in Iowa. This registry is available for insecticide applicators so they can contact beekeepers. By registering hives, beekeepers can make adjustments to limit exposure.

At the same time, applicators are required to adjust their application time to early evening, when honey bees are less likely to forage.

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One Response to Bees need quality habitat to survive

  1. Pingback: Bees of Arizona – When Good Pests Go Bad | Langstroth's Hive

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