The winter solstice is not far away, and here I am worrying about my garden bees. I’m thinking of expanding my garden a bit, into an area that has lain fallow for ten years. We chop out the woody growth and mow the weeds there once or twice a year, which has turned the space into an ideal habitat for native bees, most of which nest in undisturbed ground. While honeybees are certainly important pollinators, many other bees like orchard mason bees and bumblebees do at least half the pollination work in most gardens. Is it wise to leave them homeless?
Here I should confess that I just plain like bees. From the little iridescent mason bees that crawl into blueberry blossoms on chilly spring mornings to the big bumblebees that buzz summer tomatoes, bees occupy a fascinating niche in the garden. We don’t keep honeybee hives ourselves, but by the time our apple trees are in full bloom, we are included in honeybee foraging paths, too. Honeybees that access a wide variety of nectar and pollen sources enjoy better nutrition, and honeybees that feed in organic gardens are less likely to be affected by pesticide residues linked to Colony Collapse Disorder.
I would probably get more done in the garden if I did not stop so often to look at bees and watch them work. The best all-round garden bee plant will vary from one climate to another, but where I live it is catnip. The photo at right shows catnip (catmint) covered with bumblebees, but during certain hours honeybees may be equally numerous. Catnip also blooms for a long time, saving bees from wasting energy searching for new nectar sources.
Flower nectar is the main source of carbohydrates for bees, but they need pollen for protein. Most native bees collect pollen to feed to their young, and mason bees line their egg cavities with a cushion of pollen. The pollen imperative becomes intense in late spring, after spring-blooming bulbs, shrubs and trees have finished, but before summer annuals have begun to flower. This is where hardy annuals like breadseed poppies fill an important gap, serving as beacons to bees in search of fresh pollen.
It has been known since the time of Aristotle that bees learn new things quickly when rewarded by nectar or pollen. My reasoning is that one successful bee visit should lead to another, so I’m always watching for plants and plant combinations that seem especially pleasing to bees. One of the most impressive is the marriage of two stalwart perennial flowers – showy autumn sedum and garlic chives, grown in adjoining clumps. Between the two flowers, I have counted more than five different kinds of garden bees on a late summer day.
One of the reasons my garden has so many bees is that I use only targeted organic pesticides (on very rare occasions), plus I slosh so much water about that bees can usually find plenty to drink during periods of dry weather. In any given year, I plant either borage or scarlet runner beans for the bumblers, and make many small plantings of buckwheat with honeybees and other beneficials in mind. Pollen-rich sunflowers also are hugely popular with a wide variety of bees.
Many native bees are basically solitary, living alone in holes in the ground or under logs, while others form small colonies. Bumblebee colonies grow to include a dozen or more individuals in summer, but at the end of the season the queen overwinters alone buried in the soil. Mason bee larvae overwinter in hollow stems of weeds or dead bramble canes. Ground or near-ground nesting bees like morning sun and great drainage, just like garden plants, so a dilemma has emerged and I must choose between the two.
So far, the bees are winning. In today’s world habitat destruction threatens more bees than starvation, and it makes no sense to attract them to my garden while denying them a place to stay. Instead, I think I’ll let the wild things prevail, and do nothing more than plug in some bee-pleasing plants in spring. Instead of a fallow spot, we will call it our native bee sanctuary.
By Barbara Pleasant