A Win for the Bees?

Europe takes action while U.S. bees take a hit

On April 28, the European Commission (the governing body of the European Union) voted to impose a two-year moratorium on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides on food crops attractive to bees and other pollinators. Neonicotinoids, now the most widely used pesticide class in the world, are suspected of contributing to colony collapse disorder (CCD) in honey bees, and their use is already restricted in France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia.

The result of the EC vote was far from unanimous. All the same, when the ban goes into effect in December, no country in the European Union can opt out. This should give the rest of the world an opportunity to evaluate the results of reducing neonicotinoid use. But is two years long enough? And will the results, if they do suggest these pesticides have a role in CCD, come too late for meaningful action in the U.S.? This year has seen a sharp increase in losses by commercial beekeepers in the U.S., losses that some have described as unsustainable. For the first time, it was a struggle to find enough bees to pollinate California’s almond crop and Maine’s blueberries.

Neonics are displacing organochlorines and organophosphates, both of which have serious impacts on the environment and human health. Neonics, known to be toxic to bees, earthworms and other invertebrates, are considered safer for humans. They are used on 95 percent of corn and canola crops, half of soybeans and the majority of conventionally grown fruits, nuts and greens. One neonic, imidacloprid, is used on landscape plants and in home garden care products. So for bees, as the director of the American Beekeeping Federation has said, “There is no place to go hide. The outlook is not good.”

The U.S., though, has no intention of restricting the use of neonics. A study just out from the EPA, USDA and other agencies confirms that CCD is a result of many factors, and claims there is no scientific basis for banning a particular class of pesticide. Meanwhile, here in Eugene, beekeepers report heavy losses and many gardeners are noticing the dearth of bees — myself included. I really miss that humming cloud that used to envelope a fruit tree in full bloom.

This week a friend and her neighbor, shocked by the absence of bees, asked me to help design a bee garden for their shared side yard. I don’t know whether a few square yards of flowers will attract bees where none attended a pear tree in full bloom this spring. What we really need are more beekeepers, and I for one am not quite ready to take that on. But more pesticide-free bee forage certainly can’t hurt, and that’s an easy thing to provide.

Bees and other pollinators are attracted to a wide range of plants, but three plant families in particular contribute thousands of plants bees love. They are the carrot family (think Queen Anne’s lace, parsley and dill); the mint family (not just mint but sages, lavender and beebalm); and the vast aster family, including daisies of all kinds as well as yarrow, dandelions and goldenrod. One strategy is to observe the plants that attract the most bees, and plant more of them. Last month, the only plants in my garden where I could count on finding honey bees were the rosemary bushes and a wallflower (Erisymum ‘Bowles’ Mauve’).

Honeybees are not the only bees, of course; they are not even native to America. Native orchard mason bees are said to be very efficient pollinators, and you can encourage them by providing suitable housing. They begin to emerge in March, and will forage even in a drizzle. Bumble bees generally wait for warmer weather. Honeybees are sun-dependent, and will show up in winter, if the sun is out and snowdrops are blooming. Help them all out by including things that flower early and late in the year. Native plants have been shown to attract a wider variety of pollinators, including bees, than non-natives do. Oregon grape and wood strawberry, both native, bloom early and long. Douglas aster continues well into fall.

Plants that bees like attract other beneficial insects too, which can only be good for your garden. Plant calendula, borage and chives around your vegetables, and let a little mache, chickweed and arugula go on to flower. Cover empty beds with clover and fava beans in winter, and, of course, don’t use pesticides. That means also avoiding “flower care” products that combine pesticides with fertilizer. Read the fine print.

You can find a useful list of bee plants at themelissagarden.com. The garden is in California, but most of the list works fine for us.