“It’s a perfect storm,” says Jessa Kay Cruz, Senior Pollinator Conservation Specialist with the Xerces Society, an organization that works to protect bees, butterflies and other invertebrate wildlife.
Beyond honeybees and hives, the story is even worse for some of our wild pollinators. This is particularly true among bumblebees, which on a bee-for-bee basis are even more effective pollinators than honeybees for many high value crops. While North America is home to 46 species of bumblebees, a recent scientific review found that one-third of them are now at risk of extinction.
The ongoing loss of bees has farmers and food producers worried. Organic food producers like Cascadian Farm, which distributes granola, cereal bars, frozen berries and frozen vegetables, are especially concerned. Organic crops like theirs are grown without the use of toxic, persistent pesticides, synthetic herbicides or GMOs.
“Without bees, we can’t bring enough organic food to the market,” says Taylor West of Cascadian Farm. “We depend on bees as our partner in nature.”
But while bees are directly responsible for many fruits and vegetables, their impact goes far beyond orchards and fields.
“We’re actually talking about more than produce,” explains Cruz. “There’s the whole idea of seeds. Farmers need to plant seeds in order to grow crops. So we might eat a carrot, and maybe the carrot itself didn’t need a pollinator. But somebody had to get a seed to plant that carrot. And so in order to get seeds, you need pollination. Even our meat and dairy [need bees]. Alfalfa is a huge food source for all kinds of livestock, and alfalfa is totally pollinator-dependent.”
“I think as people walk around the grocery store, they don’t realize how many products on the shelf that they eat, and their family enjoys, are dependent on bees,” says West. “And we need to all realize that and go out and make a difference.”
Is there anything we can do to stop the decline of bees? Cascadian Farm, for one, wants to try. “We believe in working with nature. Working with nature is how we approach farming. And some of our biggest allies in nature are the bees,” West explains. “So we asked a lot of experts, and the biggest thing that we kept hearing to help with pollinators and bees is to plant wildflowers.”
Which is why he is at Torbert’s organic farm in California, where they plan to execute the aerial Flower Bombing. They hope that by planting more than 1 million wildflower seeds, they will help bring pollinators back.
Full Belly Farm is a certified organic farm in the Capay Valley of Northern California. It’s busy with activity all year round, growing an amazing amount of diverse food: vegetables, herbs, nuts, flowers and fruit. One of their goals is to integrate farm production with longer-term environmental stewardship. This means supporting pollinators.
Muller understands the importance of creating an environment for pollinators. “Every farm, and most crops, depends upon some insect life to support the life of the plant. The pollinators on our farm are a workforce that we can employ,” he says.
“But it’s like any workforce—you have to think about paying it fairly or it won’t be there. So you provide them with a full meal and hospitable surroundings.” This includes creating nesting areas, avoiding harmful pesticides, and of course, providing plenty of wildflowers to feed the bees. This last part is vital: A single hive of honeybees might visit 2 million wildflowers in one hour. So in order to sustain honeybees, different types of wild bees and other pollinators, a lot of wildflowers need to be blooming throughout the year.
It’s why the farmers of Full Belly Farm ensure there are bee-friendly plants blooming all year round—a strategy that can be effective far beyond a farm field. In fact, planting native, bee-friendly plants can be effective in cities and suburbs alike.
Ellen Zagory is a Master Gardener at UC Davis who educates citizens on gardening.
“Make a plan and do a little information collecting ahead of time,” she explains. “Go local. Find out what the local resources are.” Zagory advises people to plant wildflowers that are native to their area, and ones that are not pretreated with pesticides. The wildflowers will be better adapted to the soil, climate and types of pollinators that live there. She also makes sure to tell people that they don’t need a huge yard to make a difference. “Even a few [bee friendly] plants at the edge of a yard, in a windowsill or on a balcony can attract pollinators.”
“It’s sort of a joke I make that if you plant it, they will come,” continues Zagory. “If you are lucky enough to have a balcony of some kind, you can have a whole garden on your balcony just using containers.”
But planting native wildflowers isn’t just an effective solution: It’s a beautiful one. “I want to add that flowers feed the soul,” says Muller. “When you create more beauty, that creates more joy all around you.”
Manicured lawns are everywhere in the United States. Mowed grass, neat edges and pruned bushes were once considered ideal, even in climates with little rain. But unfortunately, these lawns are like deserts when it comes to providing food for bees.
The very American aesthetic of a well-manicured lawn traces its roots back to the fields of England and Scotland, where the aristocracy enjoyed large fields of grass. But these lawns were difficult to establish in the U.S., as imported English grasses didn’t grow well in American soils and climates. So in the early 1900s, the US Department of Agriculture (in conjunction with the U.S. Golf Association) began breeding grasses that would fare better in American soil. The chemical industry, looking for a peacetime market for chemical warfare technology, then created pesticides and herbicides to keep these new types of grasses growing even in climates and soils not suited for lawns.
Lawns really took off when the Garden Club of America launched a wildly effective campaign encouraging homeowners to cultivate and maintain a neat, green front lawn. It was considered a civic duty. The Garden Club even stipulated the appropriate grass height (an inch and a half). The campaign was so successful, lawns became ubiquitous—even in arid parts of the country.
But while they may look neat, lawns, in addition to using a lot of water, can be unfriendly to pollinators.
Especially in a dry climate like California. Ellen Zagory is extremely aware of this. “We have to have a new aesthetic. We have to have a new understanding of the natural world,” she says. “We have to understand that in our climate, we need drought-tolerant plants. And they look different. And so to have a sustainable world, maybe we need to have different plants than the ones that are brought to us from our older cultural models, from say, England.”
Thankfully, people don’t need to completely transform their yards. Just a small space will do.
“Anyone can do it,” explains Muller. “You can do it in your backyard. You can do it in a planter box on your window. You can do it in a little strip of real estate right by where you park your car. If there’s a piece of bare soil, you can be planting something.”
Jessa Kay Cruz of the Xerces Society agrees. “These plants are beautiful, flower a lot, are great for pollinators, and they’re going to use so much less water than a lawn will,” she says. “If you have a pollinator garden in your yard, you will just be amazed at the activity you’ll see. You’ll start to see bees visiting. You’ll see butterflies and hummingbirds and other types of songbirds. It’s a win all around.”
Taylor West of Cascadian Farm looks over the empty field on Cloverleaf Farm. He has big hopes for the Flower Bombing that will be taking place the next day.
“What we hope is that it will inspire people to take a step back and think, ‘What can we do to help the bees? What can we do to change our environment and not only make it more beautiful for us, but make it more beautiful and plentiful for bees to find food and a home?’”
That’s the line of thinking that has Chris Burley believing in small actions. It’s why he co-created Seedles, a company that makes seed balls that grow wildflowers and other pollinator-friendly plants. His Seedles will soon be dropping from a plane and onto the field at Cloverleaf Farm.
“I was sick and tired of signing petitions. ‘Save the bees.’ ‘Reduce pesticides,’” says Burley. “I just wanted to do something about it. I wanted everyone to be able to do something about it individually.”
He created Seedles to make planting wildflowers as easy as throwing them on the ground. “That’s all you have to do. If 300 million people did that, if even 100 million people did that, the bee-food issue would be gone,” he says. “And it’s not about selling these and making lots of money. It’s about enabling people to have a super, super simple option to support the bees.”
There are simple actions people can take beyond planting native wildflowers. Choosing organic food, when possible, is a great way to help. So is avoiding pesticides. Cascadian Farm believes each time a person chooses to take a small action, they contribute to a larger solution.
West sums it up like this: “We need to realize that one small change we make in our lives can make a big impact as we collectively make a difference.”