Gardening for bees

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Bees are among nature’s best pollinators, so gardening for bees is rewarding for both you and your gardens. Because pollinator numbers are plummeting worldwide, you’ll also be doing your part to help save the planet.

As I explored in earlier blogs (here and here), most plants reproduce via insect pollination. Over 30 percent of the world’s agricultural crops depend on pollinators. Without bees, much of the food we eat would not be produced. The drop in honeybee and native bee numbers is a very real threat to our food supply. However, studies have shown that changes in the way we use land can make a huge difference. That’s good news for gardeners.

Native Bees to the Rescue

North American bees and plants have evolved together over time. As a result, native plants have developed specific structures and mechanisms to be pollinated by native bees. Some plants even require specific bee species for their pollination. So, unlike European honeybees that evolved elsewhere, native bees are champions at pollinating native plants. In fact, studies have shown that wild bees produce nearly twice the fruiting crop compared to honeybees. If you have a garden with squash, tomatoes, pumpkins, or native berries and fruit, you want native bees to do your pollination. Your crops will be bigger and more successful.

Native bees are very effective pollinators.

Some organic farms that cater to native bees have been shown to produce far more per acre than large, commercial farms. Land use is key: these farms leave undeveloped areas that are suitable habitats for native bees. In other words, they don’t till, mow, and plant every available inch of land. They value weedy areas and wildflowers, provide corridors of undeveloped land that allow pollinators to move throughout the landscape, and protect nesting sites by leaving fallen trees in place and ground nests alone.

What Can I Do to Help?

Native bees and honeybees will benefit from certain practices:

  • Don’t use pesticides.
  • Plant natives! Native plants will benefit native bees.
  • Avoid elaborate cultivars. Many cultivars are pleasing to humans, but changes to their flowers do not always benefit pollinators. Pollination won’t occur if a bee can’t reach a flower’s anthers or stigma.
  • Provide a wide range of flower colors and structures. Flowers use different strategies to attract different bees. Thus, the more flower varieties you have in your landscape, the more variety of bees and other pollinators you will have visiting.
  • Provide flowering plants throughout the growing season, for example, bee balm in spring, sunflowers in summer, and asters in fall. Aim to have something blooming at all times.
  • Allow some places in your landscape to go wild. Perfectly manicured lawns generally don’t benefit bees (or birds or butterflies). Native bees, especially, need undisturbed areas to build their nests. These are often underground, in hollow stems, or drilled into wood, such as old woodpecker holes.
  • Don’t till. Tilling will destroy ground nests and remove habitat/shelter that may protect nesting sites.
  • Provide manmade nesting sites such as bee hives or tube houses.
  • If you are able, leave dead wood in place.
  • Leave hollow/pithy plant stubble.
  • Provide a source of water in your landscape. Bees need water just like other wildlife. I often see bees visiting my pond and birdbaths when other water sources dry up in summer. Ensure they’ll have a safe way to reach the water and won’t become trapped.

 

Two Rose of Sharon varieties: On the left, the elaborate cultivar is rarely visited by pollinators. On the right, a traditional variety is being visited by a butterfly because access to the pollen and nectar is much easier. 

What Species Should I Plant to Benefit Bees?

Annuals and perennials, in no particular order:

  • Bee balm/monarda
  • John’s wort (pollen source)
  • Golden crownbeard
  • Wingstem
  • Ironweed
  • Zinnia
  • Yarrow
  • Anise hyssop (agastache)
  • Coneflowers
  • Milkweeds
  • Joe Pye weed
  • Sneezeweed
  • Native sunflowers
  • Rattlesnake master
  • Common boneset
  • Penstemon
  • Black-eyed susan
  • Asters
  • Spiderwort
  • Hoary vervain
  • Culver’s root
  • Common blue violets
  • Purple prairie clover
  • Salvias
  • Partridge pea

Native trees:

  • Red maple
  • Ohio buckeye
  • Northern catalpa
  • Kentucky Coffeetree
  • American basswood
  • Black cherry
  • Red maple
  • Downy serviceberry
  • Easter redbud
  • Wafer ash/Hop tree
  • Wild plum
  • American bladdernut

Shrubs:

  • Leadplant
  • Chokeberry
  • Buttonbush
  • Native bush honeysuckle
  • Ninebark
  • Smooth wild rose
  • American elderberry
  • Smooth sumac
  • False indigo
  • Prickly ash

Fall planting season is just around the corner. Hopefully you can add some of these bee-friendly species to your landscape. For more information about pollinators and good plants for pollinators, visit Pollinator.org.

Meet Leslie Miller

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