It ain’t easy being a bee these days.
With the introduction of genetically modified crops, stronger, more powerful, and prevalent pesticides, and a rapidly changing climate, bee colonies are quickly disappearing. According to the urban beekeeping organization, Honeylove, after WWII, there were 5 million honeybee colonies; today there are approximately half that many.
Bees are one of our most valuable pollinators, responsible for pollinating 80 percent of the world’s plants! That means 1 out of every 4 bites of food we eat is due to the hard work of bees. Without them, our food supply would be dramatically decreased, and life as we know it, severely altered.
Additionally, the demand for honey has resulted in many commercial honey brands to streamline production by feeding bees a diet of corn syrup, rather than wildflowers. Bees love sweet, and a beekeeper once told me the story of bees who foraged left over colored shell sugar from a nearby chocolate manufacturer, resulting in a blue honeycomb! While that may look cool and colorful, it results in sick bees and honey that is little better than the sugar used to create it. So be sure to always buy organic, wild, and local honey from trusted beekeepers whenever possible! (Added bonus — rumor has it honey from local pollen just might relieve seasonal allergy symptoms!)
Aside from buying organic, local honey and food from reputable sources, what else can we do to help the bees? Plant a bee-friendly garden! Here are some pollen-plenty plants to make a bee’s job a little easier and maybe even save them too!
Native flowering plants
The most beneficial and easiest plants for your garden are always natives. Native plants can be found naturally in your particular region, so they are specially adapted to the local growing conditions, wildlife, and climate. Flowering natives with open blooms are the best for bees, and you can check with your local nursery to find the ideal plants for your region, or websites such as The Native Plant Database, Plant Native, America’s Beauty, or Enature.
Old fashioned varieties of plants are tried and true. The hybridization of many flowers has created resilient and showy blooms, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that these plants are healthy for a garden ecosystem. Single blossom plants are easier for bees to access and tend to provide more nectar and pollen than their hybrid, double blossomed versions. Look for organic, heirloom flowers that your grandparents or great grandparents might have planted in cottage gardens (when attracting enough pollinators might be the difference between a sustainable harvest and starving), like petunias, poppies, daisies, peonies, hollyhocks, delphiniums, geraniums, and old fashioned roses. Bees have excellent color perception, so don’t be afraid to mix up your blooming color palate! They especially love blues, purples, whites, and yellows. Also, a variety of flower shapes in the garden will ensure that all of the 4,000 different species of bees in North America, with their different sizes and tongue lengths, have access to nectar.
You can’t go wrong with herbs! Not only do bees adore them, but they are edible, help control invasive insect populations, smell and look wonderful. Many herbs are self seeding (especially if you get lots of bees in there mixing up that pollen), so make sure you plant them where you intend to keep them! Also, other herbs, such as mint and thyme, will spread like crazy, so grow them in containers, in well-edged gardens, or in large flower pots sunk under the soil level. Borage, catnip, dill, lemon balm, mint, lavender, sage, rosemary, basil, marjoram, and thyme are all popular with pollinators! Let a few of the herb plants bolt (go to flower) and plant among the vegetables in your garden to increase harvests.
Before becoming the produce we eat, many vegetables in the garden must flower first, attracting pollinators and ensuring a good harvest. Bees love the flowers from cucumbers, onions and chives, pumpkins and other squash, as well as all types of melons. Broccoli, radish, and cauliflower blossoms are also a hit!
Nearly every fruit tree will attract bees when flowering, but some types, like Royal Gala Apple and Cherry trees produce an abundance of bee friendly blooms. Peach and nectarine trees, as well as fragrant citrus are also great options. Every fruit tree has different pollination requirements; some simply need pollen to be spread within their own blossoms. Others need to be cross pollinated (pollinated from other trees of the same or, as in the case with apples, different type of fruit species)! When it comes to fruit trees, the work of the bees is especially important. Shrubs like blackberry, blueberry, elderberry, and raspberry are also particularly attractive to pollinators.
There’s no doubt about it: modern day bees have their work cut out for them, but we can help save them (and ourselves) by planting a bee-friendly garden!
No living creature, not even man, has achieved, in the centre of his sphere, what the bee has achieved in her own: and were some one from another world to descend and ask of the earth the most perfect creation of the logic of life, we should needs have to offer the humble comb of honey.” - Maurice Maeterlinck, The Life Of The Bee, 1924
Lead image source: Andreas / Flickr