America’s Bee Crisis: Part 5 – Paradise Found
This is Part 5 of an ongoing series about the state of bees in America. Prior posts are:
Part 1 – How Did We Get Here?
Part 2 – Our Big, BEE-utiful World
Part 3 – Native Bees Get It Done!
Part 4 – BEE Part of the Solution
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
~John Keats, Endymion
When my husband and I purchased our home seven years ago it came with typical suburban landscaping: a lot of grass, quite a bit of bark dust, a few well behaved shrubs, and some token flowers. Essentially, it was a dead zone. There was nothing in it to support life. But there was one Italian plum tree that makes very nice fruit. To increase yields I bought a mason bee house, but looking around my yard I realized there wasn’t much for them to eat after the blooms on that tree were gone. Thus began the transformation of our property from a desert to an oasis. We now have so many different kinds of bees, bugs, and birds that I’m hard-pressed to identify them all! Best of all, by replacing tempermental hybrids with plants that thrive in our region, there is less work for us and less need for watering. Pollinator friendly gardens provide desperately needed habitat to support our native bees. They are their own reward, for they give us the opportunity to observe and enjoy all the beauty the natural world has to offer.
America’s Bee Crisis: Part 5 – Paradise Found
Make it your goal in 2014 to have at least one thing in bloom in your garden in spring, summer, and fall. Native bees typically have very short periods of activity and their emergence is linked to ambient temperatures. If they come out of hibernation but can’t find food they will die before producing offspring for the next year. Region-specific pollinator plant recommendations are available from The Xerces Society and Pollinator Partnership.
When planting flowers, buy them in quantities of 3 or more and plant them in masses. Bees are particular when visiting flowers – once they’ve visited, say, a columbine, they’ll want to visit every columbine in your yard. By planting a bunch of columbine together in a mass, you make their job easier, and also make pollination of these flowers more effective. Planting flowers in masses in your garden is also more visually appealing than having one here and one there.
Grow Less Grass
Do you know what America’s largest irrigated crop is? It’s grass – that green stuff most of us maintain in front of our homes, but don’t actually use. An astonishing amount of our drinking water is used to keep our lawns looking lush and green through long, dry summers. Grass also accounts for a great deal of the fertilizers and weed killers that contaminate our rivers. A great way to shrink your lawn is simply to expand your flower beds. Widen them a bit every year until you have a better ratio of flowers to lawn. At our home, we’ve kept the lawn in the back where the kids play, but removed it out front. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to not have to mow, water, and weed all that extra grass! I promise you’ll never miss it. If you do want to keep the “grassy” look but would like something that is easier to maintain, consider planting a lawn alternative. These are made up of low growing herbaceous plants that are very hardy and require little water. A blend with flowers will also provide food for bees.
Big box stores tend to carry what I think of as “the lowest common denominator” plants; that is, plants that just about everyone is familiar with and can identify. This is useful to them because they don’t have much staff available to help you with your purchase. Unfortunately, many of these plants are showy hybrids – they’ve been bred to produce fantastically large flowers that are often sterile or have nectaries which are inaccessible to bees. Additionally, the plant stock will usually have been shipped in from some distance, so that these plants are not adapted to your climate. Worse, they may have been sprayed with pesticides which are known to be toxic to bees.
A local nursery is a much better choice. They have knowledgeable staff who can help you choose plants that will flourish in your garden. They will also have a larger offering of native plants, which are preferred by native bees. Many of them grow their own stock, or source it from local suppliers. And if a plant fails to thrive they are happy to replace it.
Leave Some Untidy Areas in Your Garden
Everybody loves the look of a thick layer of mulch lining their flower beds, and it can’t be beat for stifling weeds. But this is unfortunately a hindrance to the many bees who need access to dirt. Ground-nesting bees require bare soil for burrowing in. Mason bees use mud to construct their nests. Bumblebee queens bury themselves in soil to hibernate over winter. Designate some inconspicuous areas of your garden as bee territory and leave those area unmulched.
Go easy with your pruning shears as well. Many bees nest in the dried out, hollow stems of plants. If you cut back all your plants as soon as they start to get a little brown and scrappy, you’ll be snipping off prime bee real estate! Again, if you prefer a more manicured garden a good compromise will be to designate some less conspicuous areas as a messy “bee garden” and let it go a bit more natural.
Say No Pesticides
Your garden should be completely free of pesticides. Spray-application insecticides are not tailor-made for the bug you’re trying to kill. They kill all insects that come in contact with them, including bees. There is no justification for using pesticides for cosmetic purposes. If you own any of these products, please check with your city to find out how to dispose of them properly. They are poisons and should not be poured down the drain.
Take It Slow
This I can’t stress enough: transforming your garden to a pollinator haven is a process that takes time. Do not try to do it all at once! You don’t want to overwhelm yourself with gardening projects. Additionally, your garden will be more successful if you make small changes and watch how they fare over time so you can adjust future plans. A major overhaul is bound to meet with failures that are both costly and frustrating.
Show Off Your Pollinator Garden with Pride!
Once you’ve taken these steps I recommend signing the Xerces Society Pollinator Protection Pledge. When signing the pledge you agree to: grow a variety of pollinator friendly plants, protect nest sites and host plants, avoid using pesticides, and talk to your neighbors about the importance of pollinators. If you choose to pay a small fee, they will also send you a handsome Pollinator Habitat sign to display on your property. I hung mine last summer and have received lots of positive comments and questions from my neighbors since then. In fact, just a few weeks after I put it up my next door neighbor told me she was changing her landscaping services to a company that does not use toxic pesticides or herbicides. SUCCESS!
Enjoy Your Handiwork!
Every one of the photos in this blog post was taken by me in my own garden. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to go “hunting” for insects with my two boys on a fine summer day right in our own backyard. Such a variety of bugs and birds on display! We’re always finding something new. Neighbors walking by love to stop and talk to me about my bees. If you would like to see more photos of our garden, check out the gorgeous pics taken by my husband’s friend, Scott Weber, at his blog Rhone Street Gardens.
There is one more step you can take to help out our native bees – provide nests for them on your property. If that sounds like fun to you, stay tuned for Part 6. 🙂
P.S. This is a series of blog posts that will include a giveaway of 2 complete mason bee kits; be sure to follow me here and on Facebook so you won’t miss an installment!
The Nitty Gritty
Since acquiring my mason bees in 2008 I have developed a passionate interest in bees in general, and solitary bees in particular. This series is a culmination of my last 6 years spent reading books, scientific studies, and news articles, as well as observing bees in the wild. For further reading on this topic, I suggest:
For information about alternative eco-lawns: Hobbs & Hopkins Ltd. Alternative Lawns, Beautiful No Mow Yards, by Evelyn J. Hadden.
For ideas on transforming your garden into a pollinator paradise: Attracting Native Pollinators, by The Xerces Society; Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas W. Tallamy; The New American Landscape, edited by Thomas Christopher. There are also many more wonderful region-specific gardening books available at Timber Press.