Want to Help the Planet? Plant a Bee Buffet.

It's one singular action you can take to get on the side of a sustainable future

Rebecca Ryan

Rebecca Ryan

A few years ago, Marti and I committed an act of lawn treason: We skinned the sod from our front yard and replaced it with fourteen four-by-six-foot raised garden beds.

Marti’s Grandpa Hank bluntly asked the question that more-polite neighbors wondered: “Why did you tear out your beautiful lawn?” In many neighborhoods, the color and cut of your lawn are proxies for your character. Converting a lush front lawn into a checker-board of vegetable beds was anarchistic, like getting a face tattoo.

Six weeks after our first planting, Marti harvested our first radish. Any regrets I might have felt about our decision vanished. There is something viscerally satisfying, even carnal, about growing and eating food from your own garden. I was hooked.

We are now in our fourth season of gardening, and I have come to see it as something much larger than simply growing delicious, organic food. But my greatest delight has become the sound and sight of … bees.

There are more than twenty thousand species of bees. And they are dying en masse.

Beekeepers in the U.S. and Canada call it a “die-out” and it’s reaching a tipping point. From 2008 to 2012, one third of all western honeybee colonies collapsed. Last year was even more devastating: Beekeepers estimate that forty to fifty percent of bee colonies died.

This is unsustainable for bees.

And for us.

Bees fertilize up to a third of our diets. If you enjoy almonds, apples, onions, broccoli, carrots, sunflower seeds, cantaloupe or soybeans or wear cotton underpants, you can thank the bees.

The official term for their massive die-off is colony collapse disorder, or CCD. Scientists agree it’s happening for many reasons:

  • Monoculture, which offers the bees less diversity in their diets. (Imagine eating only one food for the rest of your life.)
  • Neonicotinoid, a pesticide linked to nervous system dysfunction in humans. (Imagine eating poison every time you sat down for a meal, and it made you feel woozy all day.)
  • A blood-sucking, bee-loving mite. (Imagine having a pint of blood withdrawn every day.)

PHOTO COURTESY OF REBECCA RYAN

A front yard bee buffet 

Bee expert Marla Spivak says these elements are combining in lethal ways, and today’s bee experience is something like being dizzy with the flu while trying to get to a grocery store. Eerily, many bodies of dead bees are never found; they die in flight or far away from their hives. (Watch Spivak's TED talk here.)

While Madison and Wisconsin haven’t suffered as many losses as other states, UW entomologists say preserving prairie and savanna habitats may be enough to sustain native bee populations and help pollination, even if CCD continues damaging hives.

But we can’t simply leave this to entomologists and the DNR. There is something each of us can do: Plant a bee buffet. It doesn’t have to be fourteen raised beds. You don’t have to dig out your front lawn. You can plant bee-friendly native plants. Or tomatoes. Or anything that will attract and feed bees. As I flipped through my seed catalog this winter, I noticed that Johnny’s Seeds sells a bee feed mix, a “blend of nectar and pollen flowers for honeybees, native bees, bumblebees and other pollinators.”

At a time when the climate is at a tipping point and many of us are overcome with feelings of helplessness, planting a bee buffet is one singular action you can take to get on the side of a sustainable future.

During World Wars I and II, Americans planted victory gardens as an act of patriotism. These gardens enabled Americans to produce more of their own food, so that more of the national food supply could be sent to the troops.

Our planters of pesticide-free, bee-friendly flowers or kitchen gardens are similar tokens of solidarity … with the bees. It gives them a safe place to get a good meal. And in exchange, they’ll continue to pollinate so many of the foods we rely on. Not to mention keeping our underpant supply safe.

Rebecca Ryan studies the future and thinks the best way to share radishes is sliced thin, drizzled with olive oil, with a little lemon zest and a sprinkle of salt.

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