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Garden Variety Solutions to the Bee Crisis by Luanne Panarotti

“When the bee comes to your house, let her have beer; you may want to visit the bee's house some day.”

Congo Proverb

Bees and flowering plants have enjoyed a slow dance of mutuality and co-evolution for 80 million years, give or take. Flowers alluring with sweet scents, promising sweeter nectar. Hirsute bees scrambling in for a sip then, covered in pollen, hovering to the next plant, unwitting third parties in a botanical sex romp.

Unfortunately, the system that worked like a Swiss four o'clock for so very long has not been going as smoothly in recent times, and bee populations have been severely compromised. Human sprawl and monoculture farming have reduced habitat and forage. Indiscriminate pesticide use by agribusiness and homeowners alike has killed off beneficial insects along with pests. Mites, fungi and bacteria have gotten footholds. Even the beekeeping industry has played a role, reducing genetic vigor in their attempts to breed “better” bees. Experts are wondering if the mysterious phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder in honeybees might just be the result of a perfect storm of conditions, the undoing of a traumatized species.

With one out of every three bites of our food resulting from the work of animal pollinators, the decline in bee populations is of concern to—well, anyone who eats. It is a call to action for governments and agribusiness, but also to home gardeners, who can offer their backyards as sanctuary to beleaguered bees.

Bee Basics

Bees are not selfless garden volunteers. They come in search of two things: nectar, their main source of energy, and pollen, which provides proteins and fats. Bees vary greatly in size and in length of proboscis, so they feed on different shaped flowers, and all need nourishment from spring through fall. While bees will visit flowers of various colors, they prefer violet, purple, blue, yellow and white.

That said, the key to being a better bee host is diversity: of flower shapes, of colors, and most importantly, of bloom times. Select plants so that you have a succession of flowering throughout the growing season. Summer is always flush with flowers; however, bees emerging in spring are hungry and in need of immediate nourishment, and those that overwinter as adults rely on late-flowering plants for their winter stores.

Arrange plants in drifts of single types, to allow for more efficient foraging and pollination. Incorporate tall plants such as sunflowers, or climbers such as morning glories and peas, into both flower and vegetable gardens; they will slow down passing bees, who will then pollinate lower-growing plants. If possible, select a location that offers shelter from wind, to keep the lightweight creatures from being blown off-course.

Perfect Plants for Pollinators

In general, native plants and heirloom varieties offer more nutrition than those that have had nectar and pollen production reduced through hybridization. When it comes to trees, Willows (Salix spp.), are the first to offer forage, especially appreciated by emerging bumblebees. Maples (Acer spp.), Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) and Eastern Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) follow in short order.

A thoughtful selection of shrubs will produce nectar-filled blooms from early spring through autumn. Oregon Grape Holly (Mahonia aquifolium) is a broadleaf evergreen with lustrous foliage, fragrant yellow flowers in March and April, and colorful grape-like fruit clusters. Highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) feed bees in May with dainty urn-shaped blossoms. The New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) offers frothy panicles of white in June and July, while Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) produces racemes of scented flowers in July and August. Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) wraps up the season with other-worldly, ball-shaped flowers into fall.

Consider sequence of bloom when selecting your perennials as well. Wild Sweet William (Phlox divaricata), a native woodland phlox, puts forth lavender blooms in April, and would look spectacular en masse in the shade of bee-friendly trees. Sages (Salvia spp.) send up their stalks of purple flowers in spring; Salvia nemorosa ‘May Night’ is drought and deer resistant, and reblooms profusely if deadheaded. Don’t forget (or eradicate!) dandelions, a wonderful source of early nectar.

In late spring/early summer, bees will enjoy the deep blue blossoms of Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis) flowering amidst grey-green foliage. Another season-spanner is Orange Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa); its flat-topped clusters of vivid blooms offer delicious nectar to bees and Monarch butterflies. The herb Borage (Borago officinalis) blooms almost continuously throughout the growing season, displaying edible, bright blue, star-shaped flowers; it also is said to improve the flavor of tomatoes grown nearby.

Mid-summer is feast time for bees. Choose members of the family Asteraceae, which includes black-eyed susans and heleniums, as well as long-blooming annuals such as zinnias. The tubular flowers of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) are beloved by hummingbirds as well as bees. A striking addition to the banquet is Cimicifuga racemosa; despite its common name of Bugbane, its airy white plumes, rising tall above deep-cut foliage, attract all manner of beneficial insects.

Goldenrods (Solidago spp.) offer late season nectar, their lovely yellows complementing the blues of Asters, such as the New York Aster (A. novi-belgii). Visit nurseries specializing in native plants for Nodding Lady's Tresses (Spiranthes cernua), an orchid whose vanilla-scented blooms will serve as “last call” to hungry pollinators in late fall.

Home Sweet Home

To offer accommodations as well as forage, allow an area of your property to naturalize, and let tree snags remain for nesting sites. Always practice organic methods in these and cultivated garden areas. Use even organic pesticides only when absolutely necessary; apply at dusk, once bees have retired for the evening, and try not to spray directly on blossoms.

Each year, about 30,000 hives of honeybees are trucked into New York State to pollinate the apple crop; a million hives are needed for the California almond orchards. When we have turned our bees into commuters, it is well past time to rethink our approach to agriculture. In the meantime, do your part, and let the bees in your neighborhood work from home.

To Learn More... for a wealth of resources, including school curriculum and regionally-specific planting guides. for details on upcoming programs such as “Bee Buzz for Kids” on August 14 and a lecture on organic beekeeping on August 22. for information on the Ulster County Beekeepers' Association.

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