Six Ways to Support Bees During the Winter
It's incredibly sad, but true: Bee populations have been on a steady decline over the past decade. During the 2018 to 2019 season alone, an estimated 37.7% of managed honey bee colonies in the United States were lost, reports The Bee Informed Partnership. This has major environmental and human impact—much of our produce and nuts rely on bees and other pollinators, making these populations critical to ensuring our food supply. It's integral, then, to try to reverse this decline as much as possible—which is why it's important to create bee-friendly gardens, minimize our use of pesticides, and educate ourselves about what we can do to help our local bee populations thrive—especially during the colder months, when they're most at risk. Ahead, ways to bolster these critters in winter, which actually starts by taking action in the spring.
Plant native flowers and plants that bloom in early spring.
Jaime Pawelek, native bee biologist and garden designer, says that while native bees, like honeybees, are not active year round, some begin to emerge from their nests in early spring, as the first wildflowers bloom. "Some of the earliest emerging spring bees include bumble bees, spring long-horned bees, miner bees, and mason bees," she says. Native bees often time their debut with the bloom of their preferred flowers; some are active in spring, while others wait until summer or even fall, says Pawelek. The best way to keep their communities thriving, however, begins during that initial wave in early spring. Plant flowers and plants that are native to the region, she says, since these bees have evolved along with them over millions of years—which makes indigenous varietals their favorite source of nectar and pollen.
Bookmark the native bee-friendly plants for your specific region.
Live in the Northeast? Come spring, plant lanceleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), and pussy willow (Salix discolor)—all of which support early-emerging bees. Southeast residents should include flatwoods plum (Prunus umbellata), sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum, or any native blueberry species), wild indigo (Baptisia alba), or golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) into their gardens, while Midwest dwellers will want to prioritize incorporating cockspur hawthorn (Crataegus crus-galli), Eastern springbeauty (Claytonia virginica), spotted geranium (Geranium maculatum), and cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata) into theirs.
Those in California should scoop up tansyleaf phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia), manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.), California lilac (Ceanothus spp.), and tidytips (Layia platyglossa); up the coast in the Northwest, bigleaf lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus), Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium), blueblossum (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus), and black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii) make bees happy after a long, dormant winter.
Plant flowering fruit trees.
Pawelek recommends planting fruit trees that flower in early spring to support bee populations. These trees might include plum, cherry, almond, and apple trees—all of which are enjoyed by native and honeybees alike.
Seek gardening resources for bee-conscious planting.
Each state has their own native plant society, many of which offer pollinator-friendly plant lists to residents. "Some also provide lists of local nurseries that specialize in native plants," says Pawelek. "The Xerces Society for Insect Conservation also provides great seasonal plant lists for pollinators in many different regions of the United States, and the Urban Bee Lab at UC Berkeley has an excellent plant list for California residents." Pollinator Partnership is another great resource for regional gardening suggestions that are adapted to your climate.
Skip the pesticides.
In late winter and early spring, as pests begin to become active following the cold season, it may be tempting to nip them in the bud with pesticides. However, The Honeybee Conservancy cautions against using synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides (especially neonicotinoids), which can be harmful to bees. Their recommendation is to instead introduce praying mantises or ladybugs into the garden—or, if organic pesticides must be used, spray at night when bees are least active.
Support bee sanctuaries.
The Honeybee Conservancy has provided bee sanctuaries for millions of native and honey bees since 2009. Their sanctuary sites include community gardens, urban farms, and parklands across America and Canada, and you can support these efforts by sponsoring a hive or creating a bee garden in your community. Interested in bringing a bee sanctuary to your child's school? Contact the Planet Bee Foundation for more information.