Is there something missing from your yard? Go out and listen. Do you hear the familiar hum of bees? Look around. Do you see bees browsing through flower beds, or hovering around a fruit tree? You probably don’t. Where there used to be dozens of bees busily foraging, now you’re lucky to spot one or two. Bees are in trouble, suffering from a worldwide Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. It’s estimated that half of managed honey bees have been lost to CCD in the last 10 years.
Though the cause of bee deaths has not been proven, there is growing scientific consensus that the widespread use of harmful agrochemicals plays a significant role. Another factor, accelerating loss of habitat, is due in part to the spread of huge industrial farms, as well as increasing urban and suburban sprawl. In addition, bees suffer malnutrition when there is lack of plant diversity. Malnutrition is another result of industrial farming practice, in which a monoculture, or one crop, covers thousands of acres, starving bees of nutrients. These factors stress bees, wreaking havoc on their immune systems, and making them vulnerable to parasites and disease.
Beyond diminishing biodiversity, does the loss of bees matter? Honey bees play an essential role as pollinators. Seeking nutrients from pollen and nectar, bees flit from one flowering plant to the next. As they travel between plants, pollen collects on their bodies and is tracked between flowers like mud from the garden. When plants are the same type, pollination occurs and seeds form, bringing fruit, nuts, and vegetables.
While some plants are self-pollinating, about one-third of commercially grown crops require a pollinator for fertilization. Still other plants can pollinate themselves, but yields are improved if bees help them along. The loss of bees matters because it will deal a serious blow to the food supply of humans and all living creatures.
You Can Make a Difference
The good news is that you can actively help bees by making your yard a bee habitat. With the loss of wild habitats, bee-friendly yards are more important than ever. Such yards attract bees, offering safe haven to nest and forage. If every neighborhood had bee gardens, bees would have a much better prospect, and they’d return the favor by pollinating plants. The following suggestions detail the do’s and don’ts of creating a bee garden.
Keep Your Yard Blooming
Make sure your yard is in bloom throughout the growing season. When thinking about the unfolding of blooms, include flowers, wildflowers, and weeds. Also consider flowering trees, bushes, and berries, as well as herbs and vegetables. A yard with blooms in all seasons guarantees forage for bees, while adding to the beauty of your home.
Grow a Variety of Plants
Bees need a variety of nutrients, which can’t be found in any one plant. That’s why a garden with an assortment of plants provides the best support for bees. Vary your flowers, and allow wildflowers to spring up. Start berry bushes or vines and plant fruit trees. Keep a vegetable and herb garden. Fill window boxes with riotous clumps of bright flowers. Plant flowering shrubbery for privacy and beauty. Bees will be drawn to your yard, and you’ll create a lovely environment for both bees and your family.
Create Blocks of Color
Bees are attracted to big blocks of one color. A flower bed 2 to 3 feet square with eye-popping color lures bees and provides them with easy forage. They load up on nectar and pollen without spending energy traveling between blossoms. Big clusters of bright flowers like bee balm, cosmos, or bachelor buttons benefit bees and adds visual pop to your garden.
Allow Weeds to Grow
Leave a place where wildflowers and weeds can grow. Bees love thickets and weedy patches of clover, buttercups, goldenrod, loosestrife, or dandelions. Weedy brush provides excellent browse and cover for bees.
Also, let your vegetable garden run to seed. Once vegetables are harvested, don’t rush to clean up the bed. Allow plants to remain to sprout flowers and seeds, a banquet for bees.
Give bees a spot to sip clean water. You may already have a bird bath, which bees can use as well, as long as it’s shallow. Just add a small rock where bees can perch safely while having a cool drink.
Bees need a place to nest. There are many types of bees, each with different nesting habits. Some solitary bees dig a nest in dirt. If you leave a spot with bare soil in the garden or at the edge of your lawn, it helps them find a place to burrow. Other bees prefer to nest in empty cavities, such as a hollow tree limb. Leave dead limbs in place, if it’s not hazardous. Stacked firewood and brush piles are also favorite haunts of bees.
Give Them What They Love
Bees are most attracted to violet, though they’ll forage blooms of any color. It’s easiest for them to browse flowers that have a single row of petals and an accessible center, like daisies. They’re drawn to flowers with tubular shapes, like foxglove. Bees love mint and any plants in the mint family, such as oregano and catnip. The following lists of plants, arranged by season of bloom, are offered as a starting point for planting your garden.
Winter into Spring
Early spring flowers include bluebells, crocus, daffodils, iris, hyacinth, and pansies. Trees like apple, plum, cherry, lilac, and pussy willow provide early blossoms. In middle spring, dandelions speckle your lawn. Strawberries and raspberries open multiple white flowers. In the vegetable garden, peas and onions provide forage.
Spring to Summer
For late spring and summer blooms, plant lupine, snapdragons, bachelor buttons, poppies, bee balm, daisies, cosmos, sweet pea, or dahlias. Wild cherries and rhododendron offer good browse. In your herb garden, include thyme, mint, oregano, basil, rosemary, or lavender. In the vegetable garden, squash, cucumber, pumpkins, and melons are bee favorites. Some raspberries continue to bloom through summer, and blackberries, blueberries, and elderberries flower. If allowed, buttercup and clover grow up in the grass.
Summer and Early Fall
Mid- to late-summer blooms include sunflowers, nasturtium, hollyhocks, zinnias, salvia, and asters. Plant sedum, ground ivy, and globe thistle for bees to browse, and give goldenrod and loosestrife a spot to grow wild. Witch hazel blooms late in fall, providing vital end-of-season forage.
Winter in Warm Climates
If your growing season extends through winter months, plant winter honeysuckle, flowering quince, Christmas roses, cyclamen and snowdrops. For shrubs and trees, include viburnum, avocado, mango, lime, or pepper trees. In the vegetable garden grow sweet potatoes, peppers, melons of all kind, and eggplant.
Don’t Poison Them
Having created a beautiful garden to lure bees to your yard, it’s essential to provide safe plants. The single most important thing you can do to help bees is keep a pesticide- and herbicide-free yard. Pesticides are applied to plants either by the grower before purchase, or by you after purchase.
Be Careful What You Bring Home
When purchasing plants, be on the lookout for those dosed with pesticides. Buy plants at an organic supplier or a farmer’s market. Be suspicious of labels such as “bee friendly.” Plants sold at big garden centers bear this label, though they’ve been dosed with a harmful neonicotinoid, a pesticide which becomes systemic to the plant, or part of its structure. This pesticide is present throughout the plant, including the pollen and nectar, and it kills bees. Read labels, ask questions, and stay with organic or verifiable untreated plants. The time you take finding healthy plants will save bees’ lives.
Don’t Poison Your Yard
At home, don’t use pesticides or herbicides anywhere. The quest for an emerald green lawn is dooming bees. One herbicide, glyphosate, is heavily implicated in the bee die-off. Marketed as Roundup, it’s the world’s leading herbicide. Like the neonicotinoid, it becomes systemic to plants, once applied. It never washes off.
Sprayed heavily on plants genetically modified to withstand it, Roundup kills weeds. It also kills plants that aren’t genetically altered, as well as insects. birds, and small mammals who are exposed to it. Numerous studies raise serious concerns that Roundup endangers human health. Banned in many countries around the world, Roundup and generic glyphosate brands can be found at any hardware store in the U.S. Don’t buy it, for your own sake and for bees’.
Garden Like Your Grandparents Did
Instead rethink your approach to weed and insect control and find ways to improve your lawn, nourish plants, and control unwanted insects naturally. There are countless methods that were used for thousands of years, before the age of pesticides. Ingenious ideas abound online and in magazines. Your local organic growers likely offer products that are safe for use as fertilizers or pest control. These types of products ward off pests, rather than kill them, or may encourage beneficial insects and birds which are natural predators of the unwanted ones.
What’s Good for Bees is Good for You
All of these suggestions reap a double reward. While planting flowers, fruit trees, herbs, and vegetables to help bees, you end up with a beautiful yard. The pleasure you take in your garden is enhanced and the value of your property increased. You enjoy the fruits of your labors at harvest. You eat food grown naturally, the old-fashioned way, without harmful toxins and genetic tinkering by chemical companies. You can feel safe allowing your children and pets to play on the grass, knowing that they’re not being exposed to toxic chemicals. It helps the bees, and it benefits you and your family.
So go ahead and sow seeds. Enjoy your garden and yard. Carry on planting, making sure to include plants bees love. If you’re lucky you’ll be well rewarded with the lovely hum of busy foragers, and the sight of healthy honey bees, bodies heavy with golden pollen, lurching from one bright bloom to the next.