Just a few months ago, Ohio’s once common rusty patched bumble bee was added to the federal endangered species list. And even before this news, bee populations around the globe have been at risk for a number of years due to disease, pesticides, environmental changes and other concerns.
What could be considered some of nature’s tiniest farmers, bees are an important part of our ecosystem, from pollinating the food we eat to helping to produce seeds and fruit that feed wildlife.
So, while this serious issue may seem insurmountable for one person to address, there are ways that Akronites can work toward reversing this problem. We’ve asked a few local beekeepers for their advice, and there’s one clear solution: let the wild things grow in your yard, especially native flowers.
“Embrace wild beauty in the lawn,” says Laura Urban, who owns and operates Urban Honey Bee, an Akron area company that sells bees, beekeeping equipment and honey. “Stay away from chemical companies that kill all the dandelions and clover. A green lawn is a desert to a bee. If you must use pesticides, try and choose pollinator-friendly products and make sure you follow the label. Please don’t spray anything with the flowers blooming.”
Urban encourages residents to consider diversity in their landscaping. “Ideally, we’d have a landscape that would provide food to pollinators consistently throughout the growing season,” she adds.
If there are wildflowers in your yard, like dandelions, white clover or grape hyacinth, these are ideal plants for pollinators, even if you dedicate a corner or patch to these types of plants. Other suggested flowers are hollyhocks, echinacea, shasta daisies and Sedum Spectabile (a flowering plant).
Urban says the linden tree is an excellent source because it blooms when others have run past their prime. Additionally, “Maples are a source of early pollen, and black locust trees give us a beautiful light honey.”
While it’s “the bane of gardeners,” the Japanese knotweed also is a gift to pollinators, she adds. “If you observe this plant in bloom in the late summer, you’ll see it alive with pollinators, and fortunately in the Akron area, there’s lots of it. For us beekeepers it gives us a beautiful dark red honey, which is also one of my personal favorites.” This late summer harvest also helps sustain bees throughout the winter.
Brent Wesley, who runs Akron Honey Company, recommends going to your local greenhouse or nursery and asking for plants that are pollinator-friendly and also native. Akron Honey offers raw urban honey from different Akron neighborhood apiaries, along with skin care products. The batches of honey the company produces are different in appearance and flavor, depending on which neighborhood they’re harvested from.
The Order of the Mason (bees)
And when we’re considering local pollinators, honey bees aren’t even a native species.
Meghan Meeker, social media specialist for University of Akron and a local photographer, raises mason bees, which she says are much easier to care for than honey bees, and they’re better pollinators.
“Since they are native to our area and more ‘wild,’ they require little maintenance; just a place to hibernate in your fridge during the winter and some human help to clean out their homes and remove cocoons in the fall,” says Meeker, who adds that honey bees are actually “immigrants” to this area.
Mason bees also are superior pollinators, she points out. “Honey bees are extremely efficient at gathering pollen but not so great at dropping it,” she adds. “Honey bees are built for carrying large amounts of pollen because they have to bring it back to a hive with lots of residents. Mason bees, on the other hand, are solitary bees and only need to gather enough pollen to leave a small amount for each egg laid. So they are excellent at spreading the pollen around (i.e. dropping it), which is why I have an abundance of fruit each summer: our peach tree was so full of fruit last year that a limb broke off!”
And another benefit to mason bees is their disposition. Because they are solitary and don’t have to protect a large food source, “they don’t sting and are very gentle,” says Meeker.
Beekeeper do’s and don’t’s
Some residents may feel the need to accept the call of preservation beyond growing wildflowers, but if you want to get into beekeeping, there’s a lot you need to know first. Doing research, attending classes and consulting established beekeepers are all crucial, because an ill-informed beekeeper could actually cause damage to neighboring populations, spreading diseases and parasites to area hives.
“So many people get into it thinking they are helping honey bees simply by having hives, when in actuality you’d be better off simply trying to improve their habitat or supporting a local beekeeper by buying local honey,” says Urban. She admits keeping honey bees can be an expensive hobby. “I wouldn’t get a horse or a dog without knowing how to take care of it, and many would consider it inhumane to do so.”
She says that open apiary sessions, hosted by Let’s Grow Akron, are offered the first Saturday of the month.
Wesley says beekeeping is a very time heavy activity. “If you really want to be good at it, you have to do it for quite some time.” For those interested in keeping honey bees, he recommends working under someone who has experience and who has a track record of success.
“The reason I say this is because it seems as if many people glamorize beekeeping as something that is so easy to do and learn,” he adds. “It’s not. It’s hard. It’s scary at times. I have to say that many times, the first year of keeping bees is the last year of keeping bees for first-timers.”
While keeping honey bees has its share of challenges, mason bee husbandry is “super simple,” says Meeker. “All you need is a bee ‘hotel,’” she says. “I recommend getting a box-like house and filling it with paper reeds that you can tear apart in the fall.” Tearing apart the house is important, she adds, because without this step, your bees could be prey for predatory wasps, birds and chalkbrood — a fungal disease that can weaken entire bee populations.
“The house needs to be placed outside in early spring, when it’s consistently 55 degrees out, facing the east so as to get the morning sun warming and waking your bees,” adds Meeker. “They need to be close to early spring flowering plants: fruit trees are excellent because then you get something in return from your bees.”
She says that mason bees, because of their gentle nature, also are an ideal teaching opportunity for people with children and a great asset to gardeners and local bee populations.
“They won’t travel more than about 300 feet for food,” she adds. “You also need to be sure they are close to a source for mud (this is why they are called mason bees – female bees use thick clay mud to build walls between where they lay their eggs and then add a thick mud ‘cap’ at the end of each reed to protect their babies). You can buy cocoons online, or if conditions are right, attract local bees.”
Another way to help local bee populations is though a new statewide citizen science project called the Bee Atlas. Launched by Ohio State University and partner agencies, the project enables Ohioans to upload bee images from phones or other devices to include in the Atlas. Experts will weigh-in to identify the images.
The effort was launched jointly by several local organizations using the iNaturalist platform to document the distribution and identity of bumble bees and other Ohio bees.
“Bees – including bumble bees, honey bees and many other species — are facing threats such as loss of nesting and food habitat, diseases, pesticides, intensive farming and global climate change,” says Denise Ellsworth of The Ohio State University Bee Lab. “These threats have contributed to the decline of the rusty patched bumble bee, which is now in danger of becoming extinct.”
For more info about the Ohio Bee Atlas project, visit go.osu.edu/ohiobeeatlas.