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North Hills Monthly

Saving Endangered Bees a Priority for Environment, Economy

Mar 30, 2019 10:55AM ● By Kathleen Ganster

Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Botanic Garden

Buzzing bees may be annoying at a picnic or at the pool, but they are an essential part of our environment. And they are in danger.

“In 2017, bees were put on the endangered species list for the first time,” said Matthew Opdyke, Ph.D., an environmental scientist and professor at Point Park University.

There are numerous causes for the decline. “In the urban region of Allegheny County, it is the loss of nesting habitat, lack of food in the form of wildflowers, and garden pesticides. Bumblebees and sweat bees, which are two dominant bee pollinators in the region, nest in the ground. When land is developed for housing, it destroys their nesting habitat,” Opdyke explained.

But why are bees even important?

“Bees, along with other pollinators such as birds, bats, and other insects, are essential to pollination, which is the transfer of pollen from male to female flower parts in many plants. This is the first step in a process that produces seeds, fruits, and the next generation of plants,” said Sarada Sangameswaran, education director at Pittsburgh Botanic Garden.

She added that according to the Pollinator Partnership, between 75-95 percent of all flowering plants on the earth, including over 1,200 crops, rely on pollinators.

“That means that one out of every three bites of food you eat exists because of pollinators,” she said, adding that pollinators add $217 billion dollars to the global economy. In the U.S. alone, bees are responsible for billions of dollars in agricultural productivity.

C. Richard Packer, beekeeper and owner of Dancing Bees Apiary and his wife, Lisa Bernardo, Penn State Extension Master Gardener and owner of Dancing Bee Garden Design, work together to assist the local bee population. Along with maintaining 15 hives in various locations, Packer serves as a mentor to other beekeepers and Bernardo designs gardens that attract pollinators. The Richland Township couple has a few tips for those interested in assisting bees at a local level.

“Select native species of plants, when possible. Native plants have the best flower 'anatomy' for bees to access pollen and nectar,” said Bernardo. “Avoid chemical pesticides—seek help from experts if you don’t know what is bothering your plants, and avoid indiscriminate spraying.”

“Buy local honey,” added Packer. “It not only supports the bees and beekeepers, but it is good for you. Local honey is from local pollen which can help boost immunity.”

Packer suggested that beekeepers take classes and join professional organizations such as the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers or the Beaver Valley Area Beekeepers Association, and also advises prospective beekeepers to check with township officials on local ordinances before establishing bee colonies.

Sangameswaran also suggested that community members reach out to schools and townships to adopt pollinator-friendly practices. “Imagine what can be accomplished if each township replaced swaths of lawns with a mix of colorful flowering native plants? Or if roadsides were filled with blooming plants rather than grass? Using fewer pesticides can mean a better environment for bees and for people,” she said. 

Community members can also participate in Project Bee Watch, a citizen-science program that started in 2018 as a joint venture between Point Park University, the Allegheny Land Trust, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Last year, trained volunteers surveyed an area in the Audubon Greenway in Sewickley and reported on their findings.

“There hadn’t been any studies on the status of native bees in western Pennsylvania and we wanted to do something that we could involve the community in. This was a great way to do that,” said Opdyke, who directed the program.

The project will expand to North Park this year. Volunteers are asked to attend a training session and perform at least three 10-minute observations between May and October. A volunteer training session will be held at Latodami Nature Center on Saturday, April 27 from 4-5:30 p.m. Those who can’t commit observation time are still welcome to attend the training sessions to learn more about bees.

Project Bee Watch findings will be used to share with government agencies and the media to help increase awareness about the decline in honey bees and what can be done to prevent extinction. Local homeowners and gardeners will be able to use the information to know what kinds of plants attract and assist pollinators.

“It’s scary because honey bees provide a free service in pollination. A lot of time we don’t pay attention to them, but we need them,” Opdyke said.

Want to learn more?

There is an apiary on site at Pittsburgh Botanic Garden and beekeeping classes for those interested in raising their own hives. They also offer programming including Pollinator Friendly Plants and What is a Pollinator? Visit http://pittsburghbotanicgarden.org.

For more information on Project Bee Watch, visit http://www.opdyke-environlab.com/pollinators.php.

To contact Dancing Bee, visit http://lisabernardo.com/dancing-bee-garden-designs

What Can You Do to Help Bees?

There are many activities that home gardeners and concerned community members can do to assist the local bee population, according to Sarada Sangameswaran, Pittsburgh Botanic Garden education director.

• Incorporate native plants in your garden. Include plants whose flowers include various colors and shapes that bloom throughout the season, providing pollinators with a steady supply of nectar. For pollinator-friendly plant lists, visit https://xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/plant-lists/

• Avoid using pesticides in your garden because they harm a variety of insects, many of which are beneficial. Make sure that the plants you buy have not been pretreated with systemic pesticides.

• Create nesting opportunities for solitary bees and other insects by leaving logs, snags or dried vegetation in your garden over the winter months. 

• Remember to include host species for butterflies! Many butterfly larvae use specific host plants as a food source.  

• Avoid chemical pesticides. Use principles of integrative pest management for destructive insects and natural alternatives for diseases. Keep selected areas appealing to native bees, such as dead logs.

• Have water sources for bees, such as shallow dishes with stones on which the bees can alight and drink water. Moving water, such as from a fountain, is preferred. Change the water frequently.