ISSUE BRIEFING: Threats to Honeybee & Native Bee Populations and What You Can Do!

Posted on Categories Beneficial Insects, Blog, Home, School Orchards & CurriculumTags , ,

This issue briefing comes to us from Daria Syskine and Bethany Bronkema, two of the four student researchers from Swarthmore who spent 10 weeks with POP this spring researching and developing resources for our School Orchard Program on addressing threatened pollinator habitat.  This is an issue vital to POP, as nearly all of our fruit crops are dependent on insect allies like bees for successful pollination and fruit production.  

Think “bee,” and you’ll probably picture the familiar European honeybee (Apis mellifera) – small, with gold and black bands across its belly. But before the European honeybee was introduced to North America, there were already 4,000 species of bees on this continent.

Pennsylvania is home to 300 native varieties of bees – including: large, fuzzy bumblebees (Bombus spp.) that love crops that honeybees can’t pollinate — blueberries, tomatoes, orchard crops; tiny, solitary iridescent sweat bees (Halictus spp.) that often snack on alfalfa, onion, and cane berry flowers; leafcutter bees (Megachile spp.); squash bees (Peponapis pruinosa); mason bees (Osmia spp.); mining bees (Andrena spp.); and more!

Although each of these varieties of bees have different life cycles and habitat needs – bumblebees, for example, live in small, perennial colonies with a queen and worker bees, while other types of bees are mostly solitary – they all rely on flower nectar and pollen for their food. 

From top to bottom: a bumblebee, squash bee, and a sweat bee. Photos credit: PSU Extension

Since native bees tend to specialize in a few plants, they help preserve local biodiversity while also filling in the gaps left by honeybee pollination. In fact, one study showed that on farms in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, wild bees provided most of the pollination for the studied crops; and unlike rented honeybee colonies, their services are free for farmers!

Unfortunately, native bees like their honeybee counterparts are under siege, and are experiencing sizable declines in their populations. Notably, the US Fish and Wildlife Service recently placed the rusty-patched bumblebee on their endangered list.

One major threat to bees is the overuse of pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, a class of neuro-active insecticides that disrupts the central nervous systems of insects and is commonly found being used in seed coatings (especially with corn, soy), ornamental plants, and as a pest-management spray. Their use has been linked to declines in bumblebee and honeybee populations, and studies have suggested that they may be harmful to mammals as well. Following a 2012 study by the European Food Safety Association sponsored by the European Commission, 8 nations of the European Union issued a ban on the insecticide, and in 2018 a total ban was issued, except within closed greenhouses. In 2014, under the Obama administration,
the United States EPA took action to regulate the insecticide based on concerns about pollinators, which has been reversed under the current administration. 

A warming climate, habitat fragmentation, spreading fungal and bacterial diseases are also all contributing to increasingly vulnerable bee populations. 

There are actions even individual gardens and farms can make a difference by becoming more bee-friendly. If you have a small garden, you can grow plants that flower at different times throughout the year; this supports a more diverse population of bees, since different bees are active at different times in the season. If you’re a farmer, you can let cover crops go to seed–this supports bee populations by providing flowers for them to collect pollen from. You can also use caution in choosing where you plant – many bees make nests in the ground, so planting in sunny, south-facing sloped ground could damage these nests. Minimizing the mowing of long grasses in meadows is helpful, as well as not removing excessive amounts of weeds. And whether you’re a home gardener or a farmer, you can probably afford to reduce your pesticide use by turning to integrated pest management instead.

Finally, everyone can plant more natives. Since native plants have co-evolved with native bees, it’s an ideal pairing. Introducing more of these plants for wild bees to pollinate will also increase the support of the bee population. Many beautiful varieties are available for any Pennsylvania garden, from red columbines to Virginia bluebells to showy goldenrod.

From top to bottom: a bumblebee on Culver’s root,
a European honeybee on Ohio spiderwort; and a bumblebee on wild bergamot. Photos from
PSU Extension.

If you’re not sure where to start, a lot of resources are available. Pennsylvania recently published the Pennsylvania Pollinator Protection Plan, which lays out ways to protect native bee populations, among other native pollinators. It contains detailed information and resources for suburban homeowners, farmers, and municipal planners. Penn State has also started a Pollinator Garden Certification program. By following the steps outlined on their website, you can transform your garden into a haven for bumblebees. The Pennsylvania Native Plant Society is another great resource on local efforts to expand and support native plantings. For additional advice on region-specific issues, the Xerces Society’s list of resources offers many options.

You could also consider getting involved on a national scale. The Xerces Society has started a campaign called Bring Back the Pollinators, in which participants pledge to make their gardens more pollinator-friendly; they also run Bumblebee Watch, a citizen science group to track North American bee populations and collect data for conservation purposes. The Pollinator Partnership is a nonprofit running many different programs across North America, all with the goal of protecting pollinator populations. 

So next time you’re taking a walk outside, stop and smell the roses… and take a minute to be grateful for the many species bees our lives rely upon!


This POP Blog Post was written by 2019 Swarthmore student researchers Daria Syskine and Bethany Bronkema.  

SUPPORT US!  If you found this entry useful, informative, or inspiring, please consider a donation of any size to help POP in planting and supporting community orchards in Philadelphia:

Supporting Threatened Pollinator Habitats & Introducing our Swarthmore Student Researcher Team

Posted on Categories Beneficial Insects, Blog, Home, POP Orchards, School Orchards & CurriculumTags , , , , , , , ,

We here at POP are excited to share that we have been paired with 4 student researchers from Swarthmore College, who will be working with us over 8 weeks through POP’s School Orchard Program to create educational materials around building habitat for threatened pollinator species.

Over the course of these 8 weeks, students will have a range of research-based and hands-on learning activities including researching and writing issue-briefings, interviewing professionals in the fields of pollinator habitat loss and restoration, writing lesson plans, starting seedlings for pollinator-friendly species to distribute to community partners at the Fairmount Park Horticultural Center’s Community Propagation Program, and hosting a seed-ball making workshop to share ready-to-grow seeds and info-sheets to community partners, volunteers, and the wider public.

The students are enrolled in Professor Elizabeth Susan Bolton and Associate Professor Christopher Graves’ Spring 2019 ‘Intro to Environmental Studies’ class, which provides a broad introduction to the interdisciplinary work of environmental studies through an historical lens and examines options for action using tools from the sciences and social sciences. Built around the themes of tragedy of the commons, rights and environmental justice, sustainable development, population growth and tipping points, global climate change science and debate, and community adaptation and resilience, among others, students in this course are matched up with local environmental organizations to gain hands-on experience in the direct services of community-powered environmental work.

Since 2007, The Philadelphia Orchard Project has been working with community partners throughout the city to plant community orchards filled with fruiting trees, shrubs, and companion plantings of useful, perennial herbs that fill out the orchard understory, providing nectar sources for a variety of honeybees, native bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, and other beneficial insects that support fruit pollination and the wider ecosystem. Now in our 12th year, POP has planted 1,258 trees to date; 2,784 shrubs and vines; 20,111 perennial flowers, herbs and ground covers; and supports 62 orchards throughout the city — and, we’re growing!

A richly planted orchard understory at Penn Park Orchard with swamp milkweed supporting monarch butterflies, bronze fennel for various species of wasps, echinacea, a vital food source for a number of bird species, and anise hyssop, beloved by honeybees.

POP officially launched its School Orchard Program in 2017 with the hiring of Alyssa Schimmel, twice-term POP intern, to provide more direct support to school orchard partners in making use of their school’s orchards with standards-based curriculum focused on environmental stewardship and subject integration in natural sciences, nutrition & food science, art, reading, entrepreneurship, civic engagement, social sciences, and math.

POP actively supports 13 school orchard partners with quarterly seasonal care and once or twice(*) quarterly lessons at schools including William L. Sayre High School(*), Overbrook School for the Blind(*), Henry C. Lea Elementary School(*),William Cramp School(*), William T. Tilden Middle School, John Bartram High School, Albert M. Greenfield School, , South Philadelphia High School,  John F. Hartranft School, Philadelphia Montessori School, Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School, Penn Alexander School, and the Philadelphia School District’s Fox Chase Farm. Since its launch, POP’s School Orchard Program has offered 40 lessons and has made 690 student impressions.

Through POP’s website, we have created and continue to offer downloadable lesson plan packs for teachers at our sites and across the city available through our Curriculum Resources and POP Handouts & Resources pages. 

In response to growing reports of widespread insect and pollinator population decline from restoration ecologists, entomologists, plant ecologists, and researchers including organizations like Xerces Society, which manages the largest pollinator conservation program in the world, POP’s School Orchard Program decided to focus on one of our long-held priorities of supporting pollinator habitat with building out curriculum resources for teachers at our partners sites and across the city. As part of this project, POP will also be showcasing the work of several local experts in the field working in our region on this issue and creating grade-level appropriate lesson plans for early-elementary, middle, high school, and special needs students.  

Johnny’s Selected Seeds has signed on to support this initiative through their Charitable Giving Program. They’ll be providing beneficial insect seed mixes to POP, allowing us to make and distribute seed balls to school and orchard partners throughout the city, and we’ll be working to support Doug Sponsler of the Center for Pollinator Research‘s work on wild nesting bees by encouraging 50-100 garden or orchard partners to place bee hotels in their landscape and collect data on nesting patterns toward their citizen science data collection. The program will take place on March 16th at the Education Center of Awbury Arboretum’s Agricultural Village from 10am-1pm. 

We’ll be posting updates in our program’s progress to the blog, so follow along! If you’re interested in getting involved in this work, in helping us craft seed-balls, claim bee hotels for your orchard site, or distribute info packs to community groups, and/or our school or community orchard partners, please email Education Director Alyssa Schimmel,

Now, to introduce you to our student researcher team!

Aaron Urquidez  

I am from Phoenix, Arizona but am currently a student at Swarthmore College. I love the outdoors, watching the sunrise, and sun bathing. While outdoors my favorite activities are running, hiking, and camping. As a first year I am very excited about getting out into the larger community to help volunteer with low-income communities. I am very interested in learning how to cultivate an orchard and watch the flowers blossom. Not only do I wish to educate children from local schools, but I hope that they can teach me more about myself and my passions.

Bethany Bronkema

Hi! My name is Bethany Bronkema and I am a freshman at Swarthmore College.  I am interested in majoring in Engineering and Environmental Studies. I’m from Strasburg, Pennsylvania, a small town in Lancaster County.  Because of this background, I have some experiences in small-scale agriculture and love being outdoors, especially while hiking or working in my garden.  I am very excited to experience the ways that agriculture can be implemented in urban environments. I am also interested in learning about pollinators and how they can affect fruit production locally.  

Momi / Cecilia Jeschke

I’m Cecilia Jeschke but I go by Momi, I am from Hilo, Hawaii where the conservation of native species and ecosystems is crucial. I attend Swarthmore college, where I am studying environmental engineering. I am hoping to get more exposure to the types of programs Pennsylvania has through the Philadelphia Orchard Project, and learn more about how the conservation and restoration of species is handled in an urban setting.

Here’s a photo of me posing with a particularly tall pine-drop plant, while backpacking in the Sierra Nevada!

Daria Syskine

My name is Daria Syskine. I’m a student at Swarthmore, and I’m very excited to be joining the Philadelphia Orchard Project as part of our Intro to Environmental Studies class! My long-term goal is to become a researcher in ecology and/or conservation biology. I’ve had a bit of experience with outdoors education already. I volunteered for several years in a nature center at a local park; during that time I was a curator and docent, answering visitor’s questions about local ecology, designing displays on food webs and biodiversity, and giving talks to school students during the park’s summer camp. I’m hoping that by participating in POP, I’ll get to use and improve my communication skills for environmental issues. And I’m looking forward to learn a lot about permaculture, urban ecology, orchard care, and environmental justice in Philadelphia. Most of all, I’m happy for the opportunity to get engaged with the POP community and the wider Philadelphia community!

SUPPORT US!  If you found this entry useful, informative, or inspiring, please consider a donation of any size to help POP in planting and supporting community orchards in Philadelphia: