Kids can play a role in helping to save native bees and may be eager to start once they learn how important these super pollinators are!
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“Save the Bees!”
You and your children may have heard this phrase, as the plight of bees worldwide is becoming more well known. But did you know that many of the public’s efforts to “save the bees” aren’t showing the full picture?
When most people think of bees, they picture honeybees. But not all bees are the honey-making, hive-living bees that have become their species’ unofficial mascot. Honeybees are definitely important, but did you know that they only represent a tiny fraction of the thousands of bee species, and that they aren’t even native to North America? (They were imported from Europe in the 17th century.)
Native bees are also under threat and need your help, arguably even more than honey bees. They are in serious decline and this decline could affect both the planet’s biodiversity and our food security. And unlike honeybees whose populations are managed by humans, they don’t have an external support system.
Is there anything you can do to protect native bees? Other than displaying bumper stickers or wearing cute t-shirts, what can you and your children do to help? We have a few ideas!
First, we’ll start with education. (It’s always good to understand why a cause is important!)
Why is it important to help save the bees, especially native bees?
- Native bees pollinate an estimate 80 percent of the planet’s flowering plants.
- Native bees are very effective pollinators — at least 2-3 times better than honeybees!
- “Scientists have estimated that globally, 1 in 6 bee species is regionally extinct and more than 40 percent are vulnerable to extinction.”
- Native bees are vital for both biodiversity (often serving as the sole pollinator for some plants) and agriculture (pollinating a large percentage of plants from which we base our diet).
Major threats to native bee populations include the following:
- pesticides and pollution
- habitat loss, loss of plant diversity
- climate change (sea level rise and higher temperatures)
- parasites and diseases
So yes — saving our native bees is an important and worthy cause!
What can we do to help save native bees?
It’s helpful to have concrete ways to contribute to a cause, especially if there are steps you and your children can do together. Here are 7 ways you can get your children involved in helping to save native bees.
1. Build a bee hotel
One way to support native bees is to provide them with stable shelter, in the form of bee “hotels”.
Although we usually picture bees as living in hives, it turns out that the vast majority of native bees (at least 90%) are solitary, which means that they make their own nests (not together in hives). Of these solitary bees, about 70% of them make their homes underground.
The other 30% of solitary bees build their nests in pre-drilled insect holes in trees or hollow stems (hole-nesting / tunnel-nesting). With much of their habitat shrinking, we can help these hole-nesting bees by providing them with shelter for nesting and hibernating. Leafcutter bees and mason bees are two types of bees that you can help by building a well-constructed and well-maintained bee hotel.
Read all about it here:
2. Make a bee bath
Make a bee bath to provide a source of water for your neighborhood bees. Although bee baths are often made to help honeybees, they are also beneficial to native bees such as mason bees, who need water to make mud used in nesting.
This is an easy activity that can be done by children of all ages (as long as they’re not eating the rocks!).
- Find a shallow vessel (such as a plate, lid or bird bath) that you can leave outside. (I purchased this plate from a thrift store for about $1, but you might have something at home that you can use.)
- Place in a sunny, sheltered spot. (Especially near where you have seen bee activity.)
- Choose clean pebbles or rocks and place them around the plate. These will serve as “landing pads” for the bees, as they cannot swim. Having a dry spot to land allows them to safely stand when drinking. Consider rough, textured rocks/pebbles that will offer some measure of traction (not a slippery surface). This is a great way to give purpose to all those rock treasures that come home with you after a nature walk!
- Add clean water, allowing the pebbles to rise above the water level. Check daily and re-fill when necessary.
3. Plant a variety of bee-friendly native herbs and flowers
Native bees depend on native flowers that provide them with protein-rich pollen and high-energy nectar. Unfortunately, native bees are facing habitat loss, which threatens their populations. Help support native bees by creating your own sanctuary and planting a variety of native flowers.
A few things to keep in mind:
- Choose a variety of flowers that will bloom at different times of the year.
- Focus on native species, avoid hybrids (sometimes produce less nectar and pollen).
- Look for flowers that are rich in nectar.
- Choose flowers in different shapes and sizes.
- Bees are thought to prefer flowers that are purple, blue, white and yellow.
- Plant in masses (several of the same plants together) for more efficient pollen collection.
Check to see what flowers are native to your region. If you’re in North America, these might be good options:
- false sunflowers
- anise hyssop
- swamp rose
- bee balm (monarda_
- coneflowers (echinacea)
- black-eyed susan (rudbeckia)
- golden alexander
- wild geranium
- Joe Pye weed
- allegheny blackberry
See this list of US pollinator-friendly native plants, arranged by region: https://xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/pollinator-friendly-plant-lists
4. Stop using pesticides
Pesticides are one of the many threats to the health of our native bee populations. Other than lobbying for reduced pesticide use in agriculture, we can start in our own backyards.
- Avoid using insecticides and herbicides in your garden.
- Teach your kids to pull weeds up by the roots, avoiding the use of weed-killing products such as Round-Up. (Better yet, check out #5 and just let them grow!)
- When purchasing plants, choose ones that haven’t been treated with chemicals.
- Learn about gardening without pesticides.
5. Get Messy
Bees don’t find manicured lawns very attractive or beneficial. Provide them with an alternative!
- Allow part of your property to become a “messy lawn”, returning it to a wilder state.
- Let the dandelions and clover grow, turning that portion of your yard into a more meadow-like setting. (“Your landscaping fails are actually great for pollinators.“)
- Hold off on your fall clean-up and leave some of your leaves for the bees!
- Leave dead logs on your property. (Prime bee nesting habitat!)
- Leave bare ground without mulch, keeping in mind native bees’ access to their underground nests.
- Mow your lawn less often, which has been seen to increase both the number and the diversity of bees.
- Participate in No Mow May!
6. Participate in citizen science
Look for citizen science projects that empower ‘ordinary’ citizens to help scientists monitor bee populations and inform their conservation efforts. One example is the U.S. National Native Bee Monitoring Research Coordination Network, which pairs citizen scientists with experts to help identify the photos and data that is submitted.
Other projects include:
- The Great Sunflower Project (US)
- Bumble Bee Watch (North America)
- The Great American Bee Count (US)
- BeeWatch (UK)
- Spot-A-Bee (UK)
- Bee Spotter (US)
- Scroll to the end of this page for state-specific projects (US)
7. Keep learning more about native bees.
Activity sheet for Australian native bees: https://bushblitz.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Kids-activity-sheet.pdf
Books about bees:
The Bee Book (honeybees)
Nifty Native Bees (Australia)
Once kids learn the vital importance of these super pollinators, they may be interested in the ideas we have for helping to save native bees. Which one will they try first?