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Dane Co., UW Extension say residents can boost native bee populations

With temperatures falling and days getting shorter, Wisconsin’s native bees are already laying their eggs in preparation for the spring. The eggs, laid in small underground tunnels or inside hollow stems, contain enough nutrients to get the insects through the winter.

When they emerge in the spring, the newly hatched bees will follow the sweet scent of nectar to find the food they need to survive. But it won’t be as easy as it used to be.

Urbanization and single-crop farming have reduced available food sources and habitat. Paved streets and parking lots don’t offer any space to burrow, and the pesticides spread over hundreds of acres of farmland will cause the colorful blooms bees use for food to wither.

Native bee populations dropped by 23 percent between 2008 and 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and as populations decline, so does the pollination that is so vital to both the ecosystem and agriculture.

But small changes you can make in your own backyard can help promote healthy bee populations. To facilitate that, the Dane County Environmental Council and UW Extension are designing and planting gardens geared toward pollinators that area residents can use as inspiration.

Pollinator gardens don’t have to be endless expanses of wild prairie, said natural resource and community development educator Mindy Habecker. The gardens Habecker’s planning are about 20 feet by 10 feet with various types of plants, including shrubs and grasses.

“They’re smaller gardens designed to show people who might say, ‘Hey, I can do this in my own garden,’” Habecker said.

The gardens she’s been designing for county parks can look a little messy, but bees need a little bit of clutter in their habitat to make their homes. Some bees use loose soil to burrow into, some lay eggs in hollow twigs and others need larger enclosed spaces like those in dead trees to build a hive for their colony.

But even a well-pruned garden can even benefit bees if it has the right plants, Habecker said. So long as it has flowers that bloom throughout the season and produce nectar — fragrant flowers are the best — a garden still provides a buffet bees can visit time and time again.

“Not all these plants we’re talking about grow 5 feet tall and drape over in the fall,” Habecker said. “Many gardens can have a manicured and neat look while still attracting pollinators.”

Population decline

UW Extension’s Susan Carpenter became somewhat of an expert in native bees after she found her place of work — the UW-Madison Arboretum — was a stomping ground for rusty patch bumblebees. The rusty patch bees are the first bee to be protected under the Endangered Species Act, and while the bees have access to plenty of native plants and varied habitat, only a few of the bees are spotted each year.

Natural areas like the Arboretum are important for bees.

“Agriculture by itself without the insecticides might leave some habitat in plants in the area, but you know when the herbicides are used edge-to-edge in fields, there’s no extra plants around the edges or anything that the pollinators are going to use,” Carpenter said.

The decline in bee populations isn’t just a matter of concern to conservationists. Bees are also vital or at least helpful to the reproduction of 85 percent of the world’s flowering plants, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, and that includes more than two-thirds of crops. Pollinators contribute an estimated $3 billion to the U.S. economy each year.

While many people equate bees with honey, the bees that make honey aren’t necessarily the most important aspect of pollinator protection. Honeybees are a part of the equation, but they are in a category of their own, particularly since they aren’t native.

Honeybees came over from Europe with settlers in the 1600s who made beeswax their business. Honeybees are part of the Apis genus and produce beeswax as well as the honey that people use to sweeten their tea or soothe a sore throat.

Humans wouldn’t have honey to eat if it weren’t for honeybees. Some other bees do make honey, but not nearly in such quantities. Hives of bees can make hundreds of pounds of honey each summer, which the bees then use to feed themselves throughout the winter.

‘Bees ... need to be there’

Joe Bessetti took up beekeeping more than 10 years ago. He has memories of his grandfather’s hives growing up, which was his impetus to get some bees for himself as an adult.

Bessetti keeps hives at multiple locations around the Madison region, including on the Promega campus, where he works as an automation scientist.

As he walked up to his hives, bees buzzed at Bessetti’s head, unhappy with his presence. Undetered, he opened and inspected one of the hives. He was hopeful that a swarm would still be inside the hive, but he wasn’t surprised to find it mostly empty. That swarm hadn’t thrived over the summer, and with Bessetti’s natural method of beekeeping, he doesn’t help a hive that can’t help itself. He’d rather focus time on the hives that have proven their strength to survive.

Bees don’t need to have their honey harvested like domesticated sheep need to have their wool shaved. But Bessetti said it wouldn’t hurt them to take some of the honey. They don’t need all 200 pounds of honey they’ve built up over the summer.

Both Bessetti and Carpenter agree that beekeeping isn’t the way to save bees. Instead, there must be a concerted effort in building and maintaining habitat across Dane County and the country as a whole if bee populations are to regain their foothold.

“I wouldn’t say that people shouldn’t take up beekeeping, but people need to realize that there are other bees that need to be there to have successful pollination,” Carpenter said.

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Shelley K. Mesch is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She earned a degree in journalism from DePaul University.