Bees Are the Bee’s Knees

Filed in Gardening by on June 1, 2015


reigatebeekeepers org uk


by Reba Gilliand


Back in the 1920s, the “bee’s knees” was a fashionable phrase. Nonsensical as it was, the expression was most often used to denote excellence. I’ve never understood the phrase, but I can tell you it describes bees well because they really are most excellent creatures.


Why are bees so great? We owe bees for much of our food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bees pollinate 80 percent of our flowering crops, which constitute one-third of everything we eat. Crops like apples, broccoli, strawberries, nuts, asparagus, blueberries and cucumbers depend on bees as pollinators, but so does alfalfa. Without bees to pollinate alfalfa, we wouldn’t have the beef and dairy products we have because alfalfa is used for feed.


Bees also produce honey. They make honey to feed their young and for food to eat in the winter, and we are benefactors of the surplus. We have a plentiful supply in the upper Midwest, because our bees have higher yields of honey per bee colony than anywhere else in the United States.


As if food were not enough, bees are responsible for much of the plant beauty that surrounds us. In addition to trees and shrubs, bees pollinate garden plants, ornamentals, and wildflowers.


But the bees that pollinate crops and wildflowers and vegetables and fruit trees and make honey are not all the same bees. About 20,000 bee species exist in the world; nearly 3,600 live in the United States and close to 400 in Minnesota. Different bee species have different behaviors and habits and fulfill different functions in our plant world.


Honeybees, maybe the most familiar of the bee species, are social and live in large colonies. Their colonies can survive many years because bees huddle together and eat honey to keep themselves alive during winter months. Honeybees pollinate most of our crops, including sunflowers, alfalfa and many fruits.


Bumblebees — the big, fuzzy insects with black and yellow coloration – are also familiar. Like honeybees, they live in colonies, but their nests are smaller because each nest contains only a few hundred individuals. Bumblebees make great tomato and pepper pollinators thanks to their habit of buzzing the flower to shake pollen loose.


As familiar as they are, though, bumblebees and honeybees make up less than 2 percent of all bee species: solitary bees comprise the remaining 98 percent. Solitary bees live in nests in the ground or in cavities in stems or trees. Like their name implies, they live on their own and not in colonies with a queen and workers like honeybees and bumblebees. It is the solitary bees specifically, wild bees, that pollinate garden plants, ornamentals, and wildflowers.


Bees are disappearing


But these excellent insects, these bees that are responsible for one-third of the food we eat and much of the beauty of our world, are disappearing. In the United States, we have lost over half our bees since WWII. In 1945, we had 4.5 million managed bee colonies and now we have 2 million.


After thriving for millions of years, why are bees now dying? Renowned bee researcher, Dr. Marla Spivak, Professor in Entomology at the University of Minnesota, traces the decline of bees to changes in farming practices after WWII. At that time, farmers stopped planting cover crops – clover and alpha, which are natural fertilizers – and started using synthetic fertilizers. Farmers also began using herbicides to kill weeds. Finally, farmers started growing larger and larger crop monocultures.


All of these practices reduced the number of flowers that bees need for food, which in part has caused the decline in bees.


Do your part to help bees


We can turn the decline in bees around by doing three simple things:


  • Plant bee flowers. Bees rely on flowers to supply them with the food they need to survive. Plant a diverse array of plants that bloom April to September to support a diverse array of bee species. Native plants like purple prairie clover, swamp milkweed, wild lupine, and aster are good flowers for bees as are beebalm, purple cone flower, joe-pye weed and pussy willow. For a complete list, download “Plants for Minnesota Bees” from the Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota.
  • Provide nesting habitat. Bees need shelter, places they can nest. Leave some spots of exposed, undisturbed soil in your yard where ground-nesting bees can nest. Put up bee houses for cavity-nesting bees.
  • Keep pesticides off bee-friendly flowers – Use pesticides judiciously. Read the label (or look up the active ingredient on the internet) to determine a pesticide’s toxicity to bees.


For an engaging look at what is happening to bees and what we can do to help stop the trend, go to TED GLOBAL and hear Dr. Spivak speak on “Why bees are disappearing.”


Become a Backyard Beekeeper


The Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota offers a wealth of resources for the backyard beekeeper including the online “Beekeeping in Northern Climate Video Series,” and a detailed manual: “Beekeeping in Northern Climates”by Furgala, Spivak, and Reuter. Visit for more information and resources.


Tags: , ,