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Norway's Intriguing New Answer to the Vanishing Honeybee Problem

wild bee

Story at-a-glance -

  • Residents, businesses, and environmental groups have created a “bee highway” in Norway
  • The highway allows bees a safe passage through Oslo, the country’s capital and a heavily-urbanized area
  • Office buildings have added flowering plants and bee hives to terraces while a city square once covered in grass was planted with sunflowers, marigolds, and other bee-friendly plants
  • About one-third of Norway’s wild bee species are endangered

By Dr. Becker

In Oslo, Norway's capital, residents, companies, and state bodies have created a novel "bee highway" to help protect the country's wild bee species. About one-third of such bees, which are essential for pollinating the food supply, are considered endangered.

The "highway," which is the first of its kind in the world, allows bees a safe passage through an otherwise heavily urbanized area. Office buildings have added flowering plants and bee hives to terraces while a city square once covered in grass was planted with sunflowers, marigolds, and other bee-friendly plants.

The Oslo Garden Society has also added flowerpots to roofs and balconies throughout the city. Tonje Waaktaar Gamst of the Oslo Garden Society explained:1

"The idea is to create a route through the city with enough feeding stations for the bumblebees all the way… Enough food will also help the bumblebees withstand man-made environmental stress better."

Why Are Bees so Important?

Bees transfer pollen from plant to plant, which allows the plants to make seeds and reproduce. Without bees, many of the foods we love – from citrus fruits and broccoli to almonds and cantaloupe – would cease to exist.

Honeybees actually help to pollinate 87 of the top 115 food crops. In Norway, wild bee species still do most of the pollinating, but in China some farmers are already being forced to pollinate plants by hand. In the US, meanwhile, many farmers must rent hives of bees that are transported across the country (and back again) to pollinate crops.2

We hear a lot about honeybees on the decline, but as one Wired article noted, honeybees aren't currently threatened with extinction becausethey're essentially a "globally distributed domesticated animal."

However, there are nearly 4,000 wild bee species that call North America home – and many of them are quickly disappearing. According to Wired:3

"Incredible losses in native bee diversity are already happening. 50 percent of Midwestern native bee species disappeared from their historic ranges in the last 100 years. Four of our bumblebee species declined 96 percent in the last 20 years, and three species are believed to already be extinct."

Research shows that just 2 percent of wild bee species pollinate 80 percent of bee-pollinated crops across the globe.4 As reported by Entomology Today:5

"The study advances our understanding of wild bees' crucial role in the global food system. About two-thirds of the world's most important crops benefit from bee pollination, including coffee, cacao, and many fruits and vegetables.

Wild pollination is increasingly important with the growing instability of honey bee colonies. Wild bees' agricultural value is now similar to that of honey bees, the study finds. In fact, honey bees are no longer considered wild in many regions due to their intense management."

What's Killing the Bees?

Since 2006, US beekeepers have lost a striking 29.6 percent of their honeybee colonies annually due to a disease dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD). The condition causes bees to become disoriented, leaving their hives, and never returning. Hives across the country have been decimated, and while there's still no definitive cause, pesticides, viruses, mites, fungi, and antibiotics may play a role.

The widespread use of neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides, appears to be particularly damaging to bees, and last year a Harvard study concluded, "Neonicotinoids are highly likely to be responsible for triggering CCD" in previously healthy honeybee hives.

In addition to pesticide use, intensive agriculture, including the use of monocrops, has removed the natural plant diversity that bees thrive on. Even in Norway, where problems with intensive agriculture and pesticide use aren't quite as extensive as in the US, advocates have slammed the government for not doing enough to protect bees.

Christian Steel of the Norwegian Biodiversity Network told Discovery News that while supporting the "bee highway" initiative is important, it represents a short-term policy:6

"The government seems to hide behind these kinds of private initiatives, while pursuing in parallel a policy of promoting intensive agriculture which leads to the death of many bees… Agriculture is completely dependent on pollinators to maintain food production just as insects are dependent on diverse agriculture to survive. It's a mutual dependence."

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How to Turn Your Backyard into a Stop on the Bee Highway

In the US, many cities have established "bee gardens" to help attract and support wild bee species. Even airports, including the Indianapolis International Airport, Chicago O'Hare, and Lambert-St. Louis, have set up beehives on their unused land.7 If you'd like to make your backyard a pit stop for area bees, it's not hard. The Cornucopia Institute recommends:8

  • Planting native flower species
  • Mowing your lawn less so lawn flowers may bloom
  • Creating a "bee hotel" using wooden frames divided into "rooms" that are filled with twigs, sticks, and other natural materials (a mesh covering will prevent bees from stealing the material)
  • Leaving some bare earth in your yard, mixed with a bit of sand, which appeals to certain bee species that enjoy resting in hot soil or sandy nests

If you need some inspiration, following are eight plants that bees love:9

Hardy geraniums (a perennial species, different from the annual geraniums often planted in pots and hanging baskets) Borage, an annual nicknamed "starflower"
Sage, a fragrant herbLavender, which attracts not only bees but also beneficial aphid-eating syrphid flies
Marjoram, a close cousin to oreganoFoxglove, a biennial plant
Raspberry (bees love the flowers and you can enjoy the berries)Sedum, a perennial (try the "Autumn Joy" variety)