Every time you eat an apple, orange, pumpkin, squash, or a handful of almonds or blueberries, you can thank a bee or other pollinator. In fact, more than 150 crops grown in the United States need pollinators for successful growth; that is, they need bees, birds, butterflies or other pollinators to aid in the fertilization process, moving pollen within flowers or carry it from flower to flower.
Of much concern is that many pollinators, such as bees, have begun to disappear in recent years In the past decade, the number of bee colonies in the country has dropped by more than 50 percent due to disease, loss of habitat, and exposure to pesticides, according to the Pollinator Partnership. In fact, in 2015, New York State, one of the country’s major fruit and vegetable producers, lost 54 percent of its bee population. Without healthy pollinators, many of our favorite foods and drinks could become unavailable, and our food supply could suffer.
Some scientists, nonprofit organizations and government agencies are working to find the causes of and solutions for declining pollinator populations. As a home gardener, you too can make a difference by planting a garden that will serve as a welcome habitat for bees and other pollinators. By growing bee- and butterfly-friendly plants, you can boost the health of our pollinators and your own garden, and do your part to protect our food supply, one backyard garden at a time.
Planting for Pollinators
Bees and other pollinators need flowering plants to stay healthy. If the flowers or vegetables you normally plant bloom only at certain times of the year, consider planting several varieties to encourage year-round blooming.
“There are several types of plants that will keep a honeybee happy throughout the year,” says Angela England, founder of the Untrained Housewife blog and author of Backyard Farming on an Acre (More or Less).
“The season often starts with the first fruit trees blooming, plum, pear, and apple. Later, blackberries, sage, and the earlier lavender plants. As you head into summer, flowers like Iris, Echinacea, elderberry, and sunflowers become important. The toughest season on the bees is the fall, when choices are more limited, so gardeners can consider plants such as goldenrod, asters, and milkweed, which can be important additions to the bee garden,” explains England.
Keep in mind that the best plants to attract and welcome bees in one region are not necessarily the best ones for other regions. The North American Pollinator Protection Campaign has developed 32 guides, one for each eco-region of the United States, that detail the best plants for pollinators in each area. The guides are available at no charge, so consider downloading the one written for your area.
Here’s an interesting tidbit that may help in your plant selection. Scientists have found that bees have favorite colors, and for good reason. Bumblebees, for instance, tend to favor violet or blue, and flowers of these hues tend to be rich in nectar. Yellow is another favorite, too.
If you really want to make bees happy, consider cultivating flowering plants of various colors. Here are a few suggestions to add to your bee garden:
- Violet or Purple: Violet, Foxglove, Catmint
- Blue: Rosemary, Forget-Me-Not, Delphinium
- Yellow: Sunflower, Marigold, Buttercup, Black-Eyed Susan
- White: White Clover, Elderberry Blossom, Daisy, Camellia, Apple Blossom
In addition to planting for pollinators, it’s important to maintain your garden in such a way that fosters a healthy bee community. Keep in mind that planting and maintaining a garden with bees in mind is a little different from simply planting flowers or vegetables for your own pleasure.
For instance, although you might normally use chemicals to keep your flowers blooming and your garden free from weeds, using harsh chemicals and fertilizers is not a good idea if you want to create a bee-friendly garden. That’s because bees and other pollinators can be highly sensitive to pesticides and toxic chemicals. “Not only will that Roundup kill the grass around your vegetable bed, but it will poison your bees as well,” says England.
Rather than relying on pesticides and fungicides, familiarize yourself with older methods for protecting plants. For instance, you can use a dormant oil spray on fruit trees during the early spring, while the trees are still—you guessed it—dormant (and the bees aren’t yet buzzing around). These oil sprays, made of cottonseed oil or refined from petroleum oil, will kill exposed insects and mites, including eggs, without harming birds, humans, or other mammals.
And instead of using chemical fertilizers, consider fertilizing your soil with rich, natural compost, which can be made from grass clippings, fall leaves, wood ashes and some types of food scraps.
If you want to go even further to welcome bees, consider building or purchasing a bee house or a bee hotel. You can also create a salt lick for butterflies by creating a damp area with a drip irrigation line or a bird bath placed in the soil, and mixing a bit of sea salt with the mud. When you engineer your garden to be an inviting place for bees or other pollinators , you will not only cultivate backyard beauty that buzzes with life, but you will also be doing your part to help protect our food supply.