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A honeybee from the People’s Garden Apiary visits the perennial "catnip" in the herb garden of USDA Headquarters People’s Garden.

Bring Back the Bees

There’s been a lot of buzz about bees lately, with scientists discussing concerns for their dwindling populations. But why are these winged insects so important, and how can we help them?

Bee basics

Bees occur on every continent except Antarctica, and wherever you find insect-pollinated, flowering plants you will find bees. And of the nearly 20,000 known bee species in the world, 4,000 live in the United States. (That’s 20 percent of the entire species on our home turf!) Native bees come in all different shapes, sizes and colors, but one thing they all have in common is their important role as pollinators.

What bumble bees bring to the table

Did you know that honey bees are not native bees? It’s true. Though these guys play a vital role in our agriculture and honey production, they’re native to Europe and were introduced to America in the 1600s. According to a Cornell University study published in 2012, crops pollinated by honeybees and other insects contributed $29 billion to United States farm income in 2010.

Here are just some of the fruits and veggies bumble bees help pollinate: Squash, pumpkin, zucchini, cranberries, apples, green beans, scarlet beans, runner beans, cucumber, strawberries, tomatoes, sweet peppers, blueberries, cherries, kiwifruit, raspberries, blackberries, watermelon. It’s pretty sad to imagine losing any of these on the kitchen table.

Where are all the bumble bees going?

Research is still on-going, but the prevailing theory among scientists in EPA, USDA and the global scientific and regulatory community is that the declining health of honey bees is related to complex interactions among multiple stressors:

  • Colony Collapse Disorder
  • Pests (e.g., varroa mite), pathogens (e.g., the bacterial disease American foulbrood) and viruses.
  • Poor nutrition (e.g., due to loss of foraging habitat and increased reliance on supplemental diets).
  • Pesticide exposure.
  • Bee management practices (e.g., long migratory routes to support pollination services).
  • Lack of genetic diversity.
A familiar black and yellow honey bee standing on honeycomb with a small tick like parasite on it's back.
The black dot on this honey bee is a varroa mite is a parasite that sucks vital fluids like a tick, although it also acts like a mosquito transmitting viruses and other pathogens to the bee. Photo: USDA Agricultural Research Service.

Saving the rusty patched bumble bee

This year the rusty patched bumble bee became the first ever bumble bee to be listed under the Endangered Species Act as endangered. The bee was once a common sight, but now balances precariously on the brink of extinction. Listing the species gives it the protection it needs, and the best chance for recovery.

A yellow and black bumble bee perched on a white flower.
Rusty-patched bumble bee. Photo by Dan Mullen, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

How you can help the bees

Garden for bees

Provide flowering plants from April through October (early spring through fall).

Avoid raking, tilling or mowing until April or May

Because most queens overwinter in small holes on or just below the ground’s surface, avoid raking, tilling or mowing your yard until April or May. If you do need to mow, do so with the mower blade set at the highest safe level.

Eliminate pesticides

Where possible avoid insecticides and herbicides. In particular, steer clear of systemic pesticides such as neonicotinoids, which are taken up by the vascular systems of plants. This means bees and other pollinators are exposed to the poison long after a product has been applied when they feed on the plant’s nectar and pollen.

Help scientists study bumble bees

Report the bees you see in your yard or community to Bumble Bee Watch, a new citizen-science project sponsored by the Xerces Society and five North American partners.

Build a nest for native bees

Nests are simple to make, and can be added to any area of green space.

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