“Where have all the flowers gone?” is a folk song written by Pete Seeger in 1955. Since then, the song about war and death has been recorded by dozens of artists in many languages, and additional verses have been added by various performers. In 2010, the New Statesman chose the piece as one of the top political songs of all time.
Back then the words “bee” and “nutrition” were rarely heard in the same sentence. Bee nutrition was something you had no reason to worry about. Bees ate what they preferred and thrived on it. Although bees back then had to duck pesticides, their food supply was varied, plentiful, and nutritious. Meadows and farmlands were abuzz with bumbles, carpenters, masons, sweat bees, and honey bees.
In a sense, the answer to “Where have all the flowers gone?” remains political even when you are discussing bees. Not political in the sense of a particular party or nation, but political in the sense of how we human beings elected to care for our planet. Humans have consistently put their own needs before that of the environment and we are paying the price. Species around the globe are going extinct at a terrifying rate leaving us with fewer and fewer resources.
How far must they fly?
Of all the bee species, honey bees are probably the best able to handle the lack of suitable forage. Honey bees have an incredible foraging range which can be measured in miles. In lean times, honey bees have been known to cover up to five miles. Simple math will show you that a circle with a radius of 5 miles covers roughly 50,000 acres.
On the other hand, most of the solitary bees travel short distances, some only a few hundred feet from the spot where they were born. A circle with a radius of 300 feet, for example, covers only about 6.5 acres. For many native bees, a Costco parking lot is a vast desert, both barren and dangerous, that it will never cross.
Lots of honey does not assure good nutrition
The pounds and pounds of honey your bees bring in can be deceiving. Is it possible for a colony with 50 pounds of surplus honey to be malnourished? Sounds crazy, but is it possible for an overweight teenager to be malnourished? The answer can be yes in either case.
All living things need a proper balance of nutrients in order to thrive. Crops are supplemented with compost or fertilizer just as dog food and rabbit feed are formulated to provide optimum growth. High energy foods such as sugar and starch do not supply the amino acids, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients needed by living things. As such, it is very possible for a colony heavy with honey to be light on good nutrition. Remember, it’s the pollen that keeps the hive alive.
Not all pollen is created equal
But even pollen has its limitations. Just as one vegetable cannot supply all our nutritional needs, one pollen type cannot supply a bee’s nutritional needs. Like everyone else, bees must eat a varied diet.
Many aspects of modern life have made the flowers disappear and compromised bee health. I can’t name them all, but here a few of the most obvious.
Where the flowers went
Herbicides: Herbicides kill the flowering plants that once lined roads, playgrounds, orchards, and fields. This destroys a valuable source of pollen, nectar, and bee habitat.
Invasive Species: Nature abhors a vacuum, so after you kill the native vegetation with herbicide, the invasive weeds have a perfect spot to take root. With no competition from local plants, the invasives become a type of monoculture.
Monoculture weeds: Like monoculture crops, monoculture weeds have lots of pollen, but of only one type. Worse, instead of having dozens of different plants that bloom at different times and provide food over a long period, you have a single species that blooms all at a once. After that, there is nothing left for bees to eat.
Ornamental Plantings: Ornamental plants are often imported and since our local bees didn’t evolve along with them, the bees may not like their pollen.
Hybrid Varieties: Hybrid varieties may offer little or no pollen because the plant breeders who developed them were looking for traits other than nutritional pollen. They may have been breeding for color, winter hardiness, drought tolerance, disease resistance, or some other trait that appeals to humans, not bees.
Climate Change: Regardless of what causes climate change, climate change causes trouble. In some cases, bees and flowers get out of sync with each other. Plants respond more quickly to temperature changes and may bloom early, but bees come out of hibernation after the requisite number of days or months. In some situations, flowering of their favorite species is over before the bees emerge.
Habitat Loss: Flowers don’t thrive in parking lots, stadiums, airports, freeways, shopping malls, or cityscapes. Sure, honey bees can navigate the cites, but that’s largely due to their foraging range. Native bees don’t have much of a chance in these places, especially the solitary ground-dwellers, which are the vast majority of bee species.
Habitat Fragmentation: Small plots of land often don’t have enough flowering plants to support the bees that live there, but additional plots may be too far away for the bees to travel.
Agricultural Practices: Growers used to cut forage crops such as clover and alfalfa (lucerne) after flowering, a practice which provided lots of bee feed. But in modern times, forage crops are cut just before flowering, so both the pollen and nectar are lost.
Lawns of Grass. You often hear that lawns cover more acreage than any other crop in North America. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s close. Unfortunately, there is very little about a modern lawn that is good for bees: no forage, no open ground for nesting, no nesting materials, just lots and lots of chemicals.
Evergreen Landscapes: Both commercial and residential landscapers have turned to evergreen plants and shrubs because they stay green and don’t shed, but most add little to the bee diet. One landscaper working in front of a bank told me that evergreens are great because they keep bees from scaring the customers away. So sad.
Planting flowers is the best way to help bees
So when people ask how they can help the bees, tell them to plant flowers. It’s the best thing anyone can do for our pollinators. Flowering trees produce lots of forage, but even small gardens and planters can help. Heirloom and open-pollinated varieties produce the best pollen, but a selection of plants with a wide spectrum of bloom times is the goal. If space is an issue, concentrate on those things that bloom in late summer and early fall—the most critical time for bee nutrition.
Honey Bee Suite