Bees are dying off, but you can help

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(RNN) – Last March, for the first time in U.S. history, an insect was placed on the endangered species list. A few years ago, the tawny patch bumble bee was one of the most familiar visitors to gardens ranging from the Deep South, north to Maine and west to North Dakota and Quebec. Its range has declined more than 87 percent in the past two decades.

The bee, named for a rusty patch on the back of workers and males, is one of hundreds of bee species that have seen steep population declines in recent years.

Pesticides, habitat destruction and climate change are listed as the main three culprits in the decline of nature’s great pollinators.

The honey bee has gotten more media attention than other species because of the dramatic depopulation caused by colony collapse disorder, in which almost all of the bees in the hive die suddenly.

But the honey bee is not a native species – it was brought to the U.S. in the 1600s. It is also better protected than native species because domesticated bees receive care from their human keepers, who can provide protection, oversee habitat and feed the bees nectar in times of food shortage. Their decline has been researched and reported for more than a decade, but far less is known about native species.

Native bees are harder to keep track of because 95 percent of them are solitary and live in underground burrows or holes in wood. The other five percent live in smaller colonies than honeybees.

They are prodigious pollinators and comprise a vital link in the food chain.

Accounting for more than $3 billion of the American farm economy, native bees are crucial to the production of about a third of the food and beverages that humanity consumes, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

Because they are scattered about, they are less susceptible to the sort of easily transmitted diseases and pests that can wipe out honeybees in droves. But they are in trouble, too.

A five-year study by the University of Vermont showed a 23 percent decline in bee population in the U.S., and much of that loss took place in the Midwest and California, where most of the nation’s crops are grown.

The tawny patch bumble bee now comes under the protection of the Department of the Interior, which will develop a plan that will allow the species to recover, and return to a “healthy and secure condition.”

Harming or killing the bees will be illegal and its habitat will be protected by limits on plowing and development that could destroy their underground nests.

For the bees that are not receiving federal protection, people can help by simply planting a garden. Even a few pots of flowers on the windowsill will offer support. If you don’t want to plant flowers, hang up a hummingbird feeder – don’t worry, the bees will find it.

Plant flowers of different colors, shapes and sizes, and since bees are active from early spring to late fall, plant flowers that will bloom at different times of the year.

Native plants are best. Bees thrive on wildflowers, so if you have a meadow on your property, let it alone. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Bees also thrive on clover, so think about mowing the lawn less this summer.

If you’re not sure what plants are best for your area, here’s a helpful tool.

Set your location and see what’s best for your native bees.

And here’s a list of flowers that bees love.

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