“When Nature resumes her loveliness, the human soul is apt to revive also.”
-Harriet Ann Jacobs
Winter is finally behind us for another year. Surely I’m not alone in looking forward to April showers, May flowers, hikes, walks in the park, and a lot more sunshine! My favorite part about the advent of Spring is planning the season’s garden.
This year, however, something has been on my mind as I look forward to planting. The topic of bees is everywhere…specifically, a shortage of the little guys. According to journalist Chuck Dinerstein, “It has been a tough decade for the honeybee.” I’m fearing a shortage of my favorite sweetener, and I’m curious:
1) What’s the most important thing to know about bees?
2) Realistically, what can be done to help?
3) Lastly, what can I do to help without getting stung?
Luckily, my best source is right here at the Saint Louis Zoo. Edward Spevak, PhD, is the Zoo’s Curator of Invertebrates and the Director for the Center for Native Pollinator Conservation. Not only is he an expert on bees, his driving passion is educating others on pollinators’ importance and how to conserve. In the course of our conversation, he offers many exciting and practical way to help this Spring. First, let’s dispel a few myths.
We’ll start with my faint-hearted concern about stingers. Dr. Spevak is understanding, putting common fears to rest immediately. For starters, the odds of NOT being stung are much better than you think. At best, there is a 50/50 chance that a bee will try to sting you, as only females sting. Also, of 20,000 different species of bees that exist, there are only a few that can actually pierce the skin, and only a small percentage of those are venomous.
Dr. Spevak illustrates by asking if I am ever tempted to stop eating my meal and hit someone. No? You neither? That puts us in the same frame of mind as the bee, who is only interested in their own endeavor. Also, we’re not often tempted to hit a random stranger, provided of course, they are not flailing their arms and screaming at us. That is his diplomatic way of saying not to freak out around bees. If you’ll allow me just one pun, around bees, mind your own beeswax and you’re likely to be just fine.
So what else do we need to know? Let’s go back to the honeybee for a moment. I mentioned Dr. Spevak is the Director for the Center for Native Pollinator Conservation (CNPC). Although they are iconic, beautiful, and useful, honeybees are not even native to the New World, and there are 475 other native Missouri species that need our help much more. I was also under the misconception that most bees are social. Not only is that incorrect, often, solitary species are more efficient than honeybees in pollinating plants. So, wonderful news – you don’t have to build an apiary to be a conservationist. I certainly won’t stop you (although you should check your City Ordinances) from beekeeping, but there are alternate ways that are necessary to make a positive impact.
The CNPC clearly explains why native pollinators are essential: “Pollination of plants is the cornerstone of most ecosystems. Almost 90% of the approximately 400,000 species of flowering plants need the help of animals to move pollen for reproduction.”
Another iconic pollinator is the Monarch butterfly, who migrates 2,500 miles in the course of a year. With buildings and barriers increasingly paving that 2,500 miles, their habitats are severely fragmented. There are so many diverse species of bees because they pollinate an incredibly diverse range of plants. The Squash bee is specific to squash, for instance. There is even a Blueberry bee, and you can guess what that pollinates. Because of physical differences, plants rely on their pollinating counterpart. When you think that we depend on the pollination of bees for one out of every three bites of food we eat, it is clear that we need to help sustain all of these pollinators and create habitats for them. It’s not just the pollinators and pollinated that are helped, either. When we create more bees and butterflies, the birds have larvae and caterpillars to feed their young. “Everything is interconnected!” Dr. Spevak repeats – that is the message he wants everyone to hear.
The wonderful part about this interconnectedness is that conservation efforts also ripple out with speed. The easiest and most important way to help is to create corridors. All one needs to do to create a corridor is to plant a pollinator garden. Give bees a “re-fueling” station. If you are able to have a full vegetable garden, great! If not, container gardens work as well. Creating any plot is key to repairing fragmented habitats, and it is as simple as making a pathway with plants.
Some places (Dr. Spevak references the Bumblebee Highway in Oslo, Norway) have more elaborate and communal efforts than what I’ve just described. In this area, we’re fortunate enough to be close to the CNPC to support their global efforts. Of their many initiatives in pollinator conservation is “Native Foods, Native Peoples, and Native Pollinators,” which, as the name suggests, cultivates not just crops, but culture, diet, and lifestyle as well. Although this work is done on Tribal and Reservation land, the lessons are applicable to all of us.
On the whole, these lessons and efforts are minimal, and natural to most of us. What can we do to help pollinators this season? We can support the work of Organizations like the CNPC. Our region is rich with conservation efforts, and when you give back to the Saint Louis Zoo, you are supporting those efforts.
We can also make smarter choices in our eating habits. Just through the act of buying fresh fruit from the store, you are supporting pollination! We can spread the word. When we’re planting our Spring gardens, share your knowledge. In a few months, you and your friends will reap the rewards of all the pollination your garden has encouraged. If there’s anything more rewarding than creating sustainability, it’s sharing it. As the lovely butterflies and helpful bees circle, remember how grateful they are, too!