Bee the Change: Inviting Pollinators to the Table
As awareness of the sudden decline in honeybee and native bee populations grows, farmers and gardeners alike are wondering what they can do to help these small but powerful allies. Some people have taken up beekeeping, while others are learning about attracting pollinators and providing habitat and food sources. This phenomenon touches all of us, since we all consume foods pollinated by bees, and it is driving a sense of personal responsibility to steward the bees. Whether you have a large farm, a small garden, or just a few containers in the city, you can make a conscious choice to plant species that will attract and nourish your local pollinators.
A Fancy for Flowers
…but what kind? Bees need pollen and nectar from flowers in order to survive and reproduce. They enjoy a wide array of blooms throughout the season, which is important to note. To attract bees and keep them well-satiated for the entire season, it is essential to choose a variety of flowers that blossom in spring, summer, and fall, or ones with long blooming cycles. Even something as simple as allowing your late-season broccoli side shoots to flower, rather than pulling the plants when the harvest is over, can provide food in the fall when pollen and nectar are in short supply. And remember to deadhead spent flowers to encourage new blossoms to come on!
Flower Color, Shape and Pattern
In general, bees are more attracted to white, blue, purple, and yellow flowers than they are to red, pink, or orange. In addition, flowers with double petals often have less pollen and nectar and make it more difficult for bees to access the inner part of the flower and are therefore not as beneficial as single flowers. Another thing to consider is how bees forage—if you watch them in the garden, you will notice that they prefer to visit all the flowers of one type before moving onto the next variety. This is because it is more efficient to gather pollen and nectar from similar-shaped flowers than to constantly switch between varieties. For this reason, planting individual varieties in large clumps (ideally four or more feet in diameter) is preferable to scattering them across your landscape.
At the end of this article you can find a list of many flowers, herbs, veggies, cover crops, and even some perennial trees and shrubs that make good pollinator plants. As an added bonus for helping the bees, keep in mind that interplanting flowers and herbs with vegetable crops can encourage pollination and result in higher yields. Learning the bloom cycles and choosing a variety of the most desired colors will not only make for a more stunning garden, but will satiate honeybee colonies and encourage wild pollinators to stick around. Just remember—the bees need flowers and don’t benefit at all from plants that are never allowed to flower. Basil, for example, produces wonderful flowers for pollinators, but most gardening experts will advise you to pinch off the flowers in favor of leaf production. Perhaps this is the year to consider growing a few basil plants just for their beautiful and bee-friendly flowers!
Wild bees were here long before our homes and farms, so at one time, native species were the only source of food for pollinators. So keep in mind that wildflower mixes and other native species are great food sources as well as cultivated varieties. For some folks, it may seem unsightly to have an overgrown lawn, but bees will benefit from having at least some areas of your yard left untouched to allow what we call weeds—like clover, dandelion, milkweed, and goldenrod—to grow and flower. Native milkweed in particular is an essential food source for monarch butterflies. This combination of just four wild species will bloom and provide food for pollinators the whole season long.
Avoid Toxic Chemicals
It is also important avoid the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, or herbicides, as many of these are detrimental to the health of bees. Chemicals like these, particularly a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, have been implicated as a likely cause of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD is the term for the current mass decline in honeybee populations. CCD doesn’t result in the slow decline of hives—usually entire colonies of adult bees disappear from hives practically overnight. This is a strong indicator that the bees are leaving the hives relatively healthy, then coming in contact with something in the environment that confuses them enough that they can’t make it home again. Neonicotinoids, the main ingredients in many popular lawn and garden products and now the most common pesticides on earth, can kill bees outright and in smaller doses impair their ability to fly, navigate, and forage for food. To learn more about neonicotinoids and their impact on pollinators, check out this article by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
Making Your House a Home
Providing food throughout the seasons will help to attract bees to your garden, but creating habitat opportunities will encourage them to stay and reproduce. Some wild bees are soil dwellers, digging tunnels for egg laying, while others burrow in wood. Keeping a small brush pile or some dead wood in your yard and allowing some tall grasses to grow can help to give the bees the materials they need to build their preferred home.
In addition, bees need access to fresh water to live. This can be something as simple as a bird bath with stones for bees to stand on or basically any shallow water source where they can drink, but not drown, will suffice. Providing water means the bees do not need to leave your property for a drink and will therefore be more likely to hang around.
What’s a Farmer to Do?
Farmers perhaps more than any other group tend to be aware of the plight of pollinators. Perhaps it is because they are partly dependent on pollinator success for their own success, or perhaps it’s because they spend their days outdoors in contact with nature. Either way, farmers across the US are showing great interest in protecting pollinators, and many workshops and resources are becoming available to help them do so. By planting pollinator mixes along hedgerows and in fallow ground, leaving scrap wood or brush piles in place, and providing bare ground for ground-nesting bees, farmers can help the bees while also increasing crop productivity and promoting ecological health.
At High Mowing we are engaged in a new effort to support our pollinator friends this year. Our farm crew took a trip to New Hampshire for a recent workshop offered by the Xerces Society and came back so excited to try out what they learned! So this year we’re using some great techniques to help native pollinators thrive on our 40-acre organic farm. These include:
- Planting strips of pollinator-friendly flowers in the driverows within fields
- Leaving an unmowed margin around each field to provide habitat
- Maintaining our riparian zones, which were planted to native trees and flowers last year
- Ensuring that existing hedgerows, brush piles and bare spaces remain intact
- Supporting our native pollinators to reduce our purchases of imported bumblebees (which may carry diseases that can affect other species)
As seed growers dependent on the work of millions of bees for pollination of our seed crops, bees are essential to our survival. Check out this article Tom Stearns wrote to learn more about our amazing relationship with pollinators!
Bee the Change You Wish to See
Since you are reading this article, you probably do not consider bees to be a summertime nuisance. You probably already know that they are responsible for pollination of over 30% of our food supply, accounting for over $15 billion worth of apples, almonds, berries, cucumbers, squash, melons, and many more. You probably know that the bees need advocates…and safeguarding. And you are probably hoping to bee a part of the solution. By simply providing food, water, and habitat, you too can do your part.
Here are some pollinator-friendly plants we recommend, with their bloom times noted.
Want to keep it simple? Check out our Bee’s Garden Seed Collection!
- Alyssum (Spring-Early Summer)
- Bachelor Buttons (Summer)
- Calendula (Summer)
- Cleome (Summer)
- Cosmos (Summer)
- Marigolds (Summer)
- Meadowfoam (Summer-Fall)
- Mexican Sunflower (Summer)
- Poppies (Summer)
- Sunflowers (Mid-Summer to Early Fall)
- Sweet William (Spring-Summer of 2nd year)
- Zinnias (Summer)
- Aster (Late Fall)
- Baptisia (Summer)
- Bee Balm (Summer)
- Black Eyed Susan (Late Summer-Fall)
- Catmint (Summer-Fall)
- Coreopsis (Summer)
- Daisies (Summer)
- Hyssop (Summer)
- Joe Pye Weed (Late Summer)
- Liatris (Summer)
- Lobelia (Late Summer-Fall)
- Lupine (Summer)
- Purple Coneflower (Echinacea)
- Russian Sage (Summer to Fall)
- Salvia (Summer)
- Scabiosa (Summer)
Herbs (Most bloom Summer-Fall)
Trees & Shrubs
- Berries (Spring)
- Fruit trees (Spring-Summer)
- Lilac (Late Spring)
- Witch Hazel (Varies)
Cover Crops (Spring-Fall)