Bee Conservation and Plant Conservation
Altered natural habitats are a prime cause of species loss not only of bees but of native plants. Plants whose habitats become fragmented are widely separated from each other and may have trouble attracting pollinators. One can imagine the vicious cycle at work here: habitat fragmentation separates the plants from their pollinators; plant numbers decline for lack of pollinating bees; bee numbers decline for lack of food plants.
Native bee conservation goes hand in hand with conservation of native plants that depend on them for pollination. Without their pollinators, the colorful bee-pollinated plants that beautify our surroundings, control erosion, and increase our property values would decline with unknown effects on the wildlife that depends on them for food. Thus, bee conservation is not just an issue for beekeepers and crop growers and home gardeners, although food production is by far the most important arena. It is at the very center of plant production and conservation, and all who use and enjoy plant products are stakeholders.
Bees reproduce better in habitats that have an uninterrupted season-long succession of bloom. This is best illustrated with bumble bees. The number of queens a colony can produce depends partly on the number of workers it can produce in the weeks leading up to the queen production period in late summer. Producing workers requires energy, so a colony’s queen output ultimately hinges on season-long availability of food.
Most flowering and nectar production by plants in the Southeast is in early spring and autumn. Mid summer is often a nectar dearth and a difficult time for bees.
Perennials are better bee pasture plants than annuals. Although some annuals provide quick and relatively abundant bee forage, perennial herbs and shrubs are superior bee forage plants and deserve special attention by bee conservationists. Compared to annuals, perennials are generally richer nectar sources. Because of their longevity, perennials provide bee populations a more-or-less dependable food source year after year and encourage repeated nesting in the area. This partly explains why the number of bee and plant species increase together over time in undisturbed meadows.
When possible, plant perennials for bee pasture. Considering the repeated labor and inputs required for annuals, perennials are a cost-effective, low-maintenance choice for bee conservationists.
Bee nesting and foraging activities center on flower-rich habitats. Bumble bee queens prefer to nest in flower-rich meadows, and most bee species prefer to forage close to their nests. The foraging range of non-honey bees is probably smaller than that of honey bees.
Bigger is Better
As conservationists think of bee sanctuaries and pastures, they need to think big. The diversity of bee species is highest in large, continuously-connected areas of suitable habitat. Unfortunately, farming and urbanization do the exact opposite break up habitats into small fragments or “islands.” When there are many edges to a species’s natural habitat, the edges may increase invasion of competitors, parasites, and predators, decrease the species’s dispersal ability, and increase chance of inbreeding.
Thus, bee sanctuaries should be as large as possible.