Cover Story

Bee-Friendly Gardens

They're All the Buzz for Helping Mother Nature

 

Story by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Writer

 

I recall many times when sound has enhanced the sensory experience of a garden. The fast flutter of a hummingbird’s wings as it hovered near its big breakfast of hibiscus nectar, the rustle of giant reed grass playing like pipes when the wind stirred it, and the harmonies of birds and church bells all stand out in my mind as enchanting.

But the best music of all came as a prelude to a wedding. It was a chorus of bees around rows of magnificent African Blue Basil that lined the path the bride would take to the altar, a path that meandered through the garden of her family’s herb farm.

To some, the thought of bees en masse is frightening, and that day I was surprised to realize that the loud volume of the symphony I heard was caused by such large numbers of bees. However, when I saw how little attention they paid us humans all dressed up and sitting in their space, and how peacefully the family of herb farmers coexisted with these busy workers (so crucial to their livelihood), I settled in comfortably, reassured by this admirable example of a benevolent reciprocity between mankind and nature.

Of course, if you have allergies to bee stings, read ahead only to learn what plants to avoid. If, however, you are aware of the essential role bees play in the environment, and you’re interested in helping to foster their welfare, consider planting a bee-friendly garden.

In the last two years, scientists have sent up an SOS because of the loss of honeybees. Known as “Colony Collapse Disorder,” this bee crisis has had a real impact on agriculture and could be even more devastating. The pollination work of bees is vital to providing our food. Researchers are looking into possible bee-loss causes ranging from pesticide use to parasites and other stresses.

Honeybees are needed most by large-scale agriculture, but the populations of all native bees are also of concern to local farmers and orchardists operating on a small scale. Since many consumers are now trying as much as possible to buy locally grown food, planting a bee-friendly garden may help local farmers. Even a small (10-by-10-foot) plot of bee-friendly plants can provide significant habitat. As bees are able to pollinate these flowers, they enhance seed and fruit production and often stimulate the plant to bloom more, benefitting you, the gardener, in return.

In selecting plants that attract bees, you should choose natives. They are hardier and are already adjusted to the area without a need for fertilizers or pesticides, and they use less water. The African Blue Basil I admired at the wedding is a handsome herb with a neat mounding form that continues to look good after its bloom. Bees are able to see the infrared spectrum so they tend to like blue plants, but do not respond as much to white ones. They are drawn to the ornamental lavender blue shrub vitex that blooms in summer. Other plants that attract bees include hollyhocks, asters, purple coneflower, Russian sage, salvia, thyme, mint, lavender, chives, strawberries, black-eyed Susans, sunflowers, cosmos, and, of course, monarda, commonly known as bee balm.

Many environmentally conscious groups are doing their part to promote interest in bees. A project that is underway nationally is called “The Great Sunflower Project.” You can visit the Web site at www.greatsunflower.org to receive seeds for native sunflowers and a kit that explains how to track bees in the garden. Citizen-scientists can then submit the data they have collected to the group research effort. Most bees are solitary and are generally so busy collecting nectar and pollen that they tolerate the humans observing them. Bee communication is through movement, so you may enjoy watching their dances as they communicate to other colony members your particular goldmine of pollen.

Bees need sources of water and some, such as blue orchard bees and mason bees, use mud as a building material for nests, so remember to have water near your garden. Some types of bees need bare patches of ground for their underground nests, so a perfect lawn is not to every bee’s taste.

If you don’t mind leaving a dead limb on a tree now and then, some bee varieties would appreciate that material for nesting. If you are a neat freak, though, and cannot bring yourself to leave bare patches or dead limbs, you might consider buying a bee house. At the very least, an old-fashioned woven bee skep would make a charming ornamental feature in your garden.

Visit The Great Sunflower Project at www.greatsunflower.org for free sunflower seeds and more info on how you can help.  

 

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