We hear it all the time: the honey bee diet is poor. Bees need more flowers of many different types if they are to survive in the modern world.
Once upon a time, flowers were everywhere. Meadows of fragrant blooms shimmied in the breeze, viney tendrils choked fence posts, and tap-rooted weeds squatted in gardens. Flowers effervesced from ditches, outlined ball fields, and hugged mail boxes. In early spring, pink and white petals drifted against street curbs like new-fallen snow. So where did they go?
The war on weeds
We tend to blame corporate agriculture for our ills, and indeed big ag is not blameless when it comes to stomping out flowers. Farmers till the soil, plant large acreages of a single crop, and spray it with herbicides. If the farmer is growing animal forage, he mows it down at the first sign of a bloom.
But farmers are not the only culprits, not by a mile, because there is us. By “us” I mean everyone who is not a farmer. We are all parties to the inexorable war on weeds. School districts do it. State and local governments do it. Departments of transportation, health, and recreation do it, as well as utilities, railroads, and businesses. But all those flower killers pale in comparison to the North American homeowner.
In our zeal to have perfect houses with tidy lawns, we have displaced every living thing that is not grass. In fact, according to a recent article at EarthObservatory, lawn is the “single largest irrigated crop in America,” accounting for an area three times greater than all irrigated corn.
Long gone are the days when grass seed was mixed with clover. Back in the day, it was common practice. After all, clover harbors nitrogen-fixing bacteria which fertilizes the grass. With a combination of grass and clover, you didn’t need to fertilize. But today, seed companies want you to buy plain grass seed, plus weed killer, plus fertilizer—so much more profitable than a plain old seed mix.
The messiness of trees
Worse, we have decided that flowering trees are “messy.” Flowering trees drop pollen, petals, catkins, twigs, seeds, and leaves—nasty stuff, indeed. So all across America we have replaced these honey bee superstores with obedient, clean, low-maintenance evergreens that seldom drop anything.
And in those places where a weed manages to survive, we attack it with cultivators, mowers, weed-eaters, and chemicals. If it’s not grass, kill it. If it flowers, kill it faster, sooner, better. But then we gaze across our sterile landscapes and ponder the loss of pollinators. “Why are bees in so much trouble?” we wonder, oblivious to what we’ve done.
The need to conform
In many North American cities (think Chicago), residents are getting fined for having pollinator gardens or native plant gardens because they are not in keeping with the character of their neighborhoods. Apparently, you are not community-minded if you don’t administer poison at the same rate as everyone else, or if your lawn doesn’t match the lawns on either side of your home. It should be the same species, the same shade of green, and mowed at the same frequency. Flowers are forbidden.
I don’t know the answer. I live in the country at the end of a private road, which means the county doesn’t mow it, plow it, fix pot holes, or issue tickets. Even so, yesterday I saw my neighbor flatten the bordering dandelions, henbit, clover, and shooting stars—all cut short while the bees feasted. It was the last supper for many.
So it seems that even out here, hidden from public view by a long gravel road, we are expected to maintain weedless, pristine passageways and non-offensive growth on our properties. I suppose anything else is un-American.
Well said Rusty. I think the general public is unaware of the impact of tidy verges, lawns and fields. Here in Canada we have begun banning the worst of the garden pesticides, curbing ornamental use. But people still find things to spray that kill the flowering weeds and bees as well. I have been trying to inspire my municipality to plant pollinator forage corridors, modeled on the work done by the Bumblebee Conservancy in England. Like the UK, we have lost vast tracts of bee pasture, and fields are now planted edge to edge…no hedgerows even. I donate clover and pollinator plant seeds to all the local unkept spaces. And ask everyone to plant catmint, heather, and sunflowers.
Thanks so much for all you do! Keep up the good work.
Great article & I agree with you 100%. Sadly however, most of America would just ignore these facts if they even bothered to read them.
Excellent post, Rusty. I am going to share on Facebook.
I hate turf lawns. I am much in favor of biodiversity in the lawn. My yard has a bunch of clover and creeping charlie in it, much to the dismay of my next-door neighbor.
There is a nonprofit called Yards to Gardens that is dedicated to the death of the lawn. Their tagline is “Lawns are for sheep.” Lately they have been having issues with their website, but they do have a facebook page.
Yes. Don’t forget the TV commercials that equate squirting Roundup with manliness!
Wow. I never thought of it that way. So sad.
Wow! So true and so scary.
Poor bees… Survived the winter only to be killed by a lawn mower… Did you say anything to your neighbor?
People use chemicals for just about anything, just because it is convenient to do so. Then they wonder why they and their children develop all kinds of illnesses. I have come to the conclusion that many people aren’t educated enough and aren’t willing to understand the consequences of their actions. Then some don’t have the brain material for this kind of information processing.
No, I didn’t say anything because our road easement is on his property, so it was his own property he was mowing. He’s the type that if he can kill it, he will and if I complain, he will probably just kill more things.
Wow. What a neighbor… He has forgotten that whatever goes around, comes around …
I live in the city and plant clover in my yard. I suppose I am “that guy” but I like my bees to have first dibs on the wild flowers that grow in the lawn. I do eventually mow it, well except for my patches of clover.
My husband does that, too. He mows around the patches of clover. He also picks earthworms off the sidewalk and puts them back in the grass. So cute.
I’m a gardener; my husband and I maintain several properties in a golf course community. We prune trees properly (no hacking) at the appropriate season for all individual species. Some don’t need any seasonal pruning, just dead, dying, or diseased limbs. Most homeowners want things cut because the neighbor just did or they saw some DIY show on how to make things grow faster, shorter, etc. …. We don’t do that.
This community is in a forested region and yet so many people insist on treating it like suburbia. If there are insects they have pest people kill everything. If trees or lawn doesn’t look perfect all year round, they dump fertilizers on it. Even though we just fertilized (organics). Nothing is alive to them, plants, trees, etc. are there only to keep up with the neighbors. All things are just plastic.
I love the natural world, I was put here to take care of it. I love bees, insects, life cycles of all living things.
I’m about ready to quit them all. Clientsthat is.
Very well said. I never thought about it before, but you are correct: people often treat living things as if they came out of a factory, as if they weren’t alive at all. Something to think about.
Thank you for a well written and balanced article. In the south we would say that your amen corner is going to get mighty quiet on this one. As a farmer and a beekeeper I am not with out my “sins,” however I no longer use herbicides on the farm but rather I am seeking a market of organic farmers who need herbicide-free hay for their stock and mulching needs. I like to think the suppliers will bring to market the products that meet the demand of the consumer and most of us want a lower price food supply thus part of the reason for a lot of the farming methods.
Makes sense to me. Sometimes I don’t buy organic products simply because I can’t find them. If producers bring them to market, I’m sure they will find customers.
Greenpeace raport Bees in Decline might be an interesting read for you, Rusty, if you haven’t already seen it. Our TV aired a programme last week telling consumers that of more than 600 flowering plants and bushes, even those with bee friendly labels, bought throughout The Netherlands at 3 different garden chain stores, only one single flowering daffodil was without any poison. All others even had poisons that are specifically forbidden in this country.
Now there is a call to all garden centers to refuse to sell plants that are brought on using such insecticides and herbicides. People have been told that buying plants that are in flower too early in their season are this way because of things that will poison all pollinators. Two neighbours of mine came across the road to my house on two different evening to tell me about this programme. Obviously it seems to have hit home. I hope something good comes of it. The report in English is Greenpeace Bees in Decline.
Thanks, Lindy. I’ve heard several reports lately of people buying bee-friendly plants in order to attract pollinators only to discover (after the pollinators died) that they were laced with systemics like imidacloprid. I will look up the Greenpeace report.
We are fortunate here in Newfoundland, like many other parts of Canada. There are vast areas of natural landscape, little agriculture and Killex (or similiar product) is no longer sold. Lawns are returning to their natural state. The only way to kill the weeds is to use Roundup, which kills everything, including the lawns. Most people prefer the off green versus no green and dandelions need to be manually removed.
Apart from the crappy winters it is a beekeepers heaven…
You mean the crappy winters that last eleven months? Heaven, indeed!
Good thoughts, Rusty!
When market customers start hand-wringing about the bees, usually I tell them that the best way to help is to get rid of their lawn service (which, you are correct, uses more herbicide and petrochemical fertilizer than all US food agriculture combined) and sow white Dutch clover in their lawns. They say, “Oh, but I don’t want my grandchildren going barefoot on bees.”
My answer is, “So you want your grandchildren going barefoot on Agent Orange?”
Excellent point. Why are we so afraid of naturally occurring creatures and completely oblivious to the dangerous of man-made toxins? It boggles the mind. Last I heard, bees don’t cause cancer.
Rusty, I appreciated your article (well, all of them really) but this one I needed to respond.
I live in a suburb out of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. We as a nation are having a similar situation when it comes to allowing native (as well as plain grass that likes multi-species of other grass and weed) to thrive. Many homeowners are opting for synthetic turf or farmed single species turf (no doubt genetically modified) for their backyards. There are others that prefer concrete to their fence lines.
As for trees, I find there seems to be a general disliking for all types whether they flower or not. A partial blame lies with urban developers and councils (though some councils try to plant flowering natives only to have them destroyed by vandals or the said tree haters).
One thing I’ve discovered with my bees whom have yet to endure their first winter in my backyard is that they will find a way to nutrient[-rich] pollen and nectar. I think that bees may adapt to fly over their preferred range to get that food. My suggestion to your readers is support your local (or nearest) indigenous nurseries.
On another matter related to bees and flowers, look at an article entitled: “Diesel exhaust rapidly degrades floral odours used by honeybees” / Scientific Reports / Nature Publishing Group. Just another way in which we are not helping nature.
I agree that honey bees are extremely adept at finding what they need, and they will fly long distances to get it. I worry a bit more about our native bees, most of which have fairly short flight ranges, especially compared to honey bees. But your idea for indigenous plants works out for all the bees, so it really is the perfect solution.
Thank you, and I will read the article about diesel exhaust.
You are so right. Let’s plant food for the bees, not lawns! Let’s cover our yards with bee plants.
In Texas we are very proud of our wildflowers, since the state flower is one, the bluebonnet. In April most highway roadsides are not mowed to allow the bluebonnets and other wildflowers time to grow, flower and sow. It’s a small part of the year, but it has to be better then other states. I wish we had more of this honestly, more knowledge that would encourage states/cities and eventually people to allow nature to be nature, at least somewhat, in our concrete jungles.
This breaks my heart. I talk to people about the trouble our pollinators are having and what it could mean down the road and they just don’t get it. “But I’m only spraying the lawn, not spraying for bugs.” Really?! It’s very frustrating.
Yes, very frustrating. I keep writing and pleading, but I doubt I change any minds. People have no idea how the natural world works or how easy it is to screw it up. A similar quote would be: “But I’m only killing pollinators, not harming humans.” Not directly, maybe, but indirectly with a certainty.
I used to enjoy the flowers planted in highway medians and along our roads here in Raleigh and in some other states until it occurred to me that butterflies and bees both get killed by the fast moving cars, neither flies high enough to avoid the autos after they have dined on the flowers. Another thing I’ve noticed is that bees both native and honey don’t move out of the way of the lawnmower so if you have a more natural, non-sprayed yard that contains clover and dandelions the mower will most likely kill the bees that are on the flowers. Our yard looks crazy right now because I won’t mow it. Luckily we live off the road and it’s not visible to anyone but us. Our lifestyles are very rapidly becoming incompatible with nature. Frightening.
Mowing very early or late in the day can save most of the pollinators.
Well… at least in my yard that’s not a great solution either. Unfortunately bumble bees like to spend the night clinging to the flowers and if it’s still early enough that there aren’t any honey bees then it’s also too early for the bumble bees to leave their blossom. I’ve looked carefully at the plants and if you bump one the bumble bee just falls to the ground and climbs back up the plant. Really, short of an old-fashioned, non-motorized push mower I don’t know what the answer is. My son mows our yard and I always took for granted that the mower scared the bees and they got out of the way. It wasn’t until I was mowing a patch myself with a gas push mower that I noticed the bee problem, I had to keep stopping and waiting for the honey bee to move. Makes me wish I didn’t have clover in my yard. So, we are just mowing the front and leaving all the rest and my bees couldn’t be happier but it sure looks very messy, oh well, I guess people will just think we are eccentric, lol.