A few years ago, we planted a “pollinator garden” in a sunny corner of our yard. Shortly thereafter, an amazing array of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds began visiting the native flowers we added.
There was such a hubbub of winged activity that one evening we set up folding chairs and settled in for the “show.” Now watching “our” bees visiting flowers in the garden has become our family pastime where we play “Name That Bee!”
Bees and other pollinators transport pollen grains from flower to flower on their hunt for tasty nectar or high protein pollen to eat. Some insects visit flowers to find mates in order to reproduce.
Bees are especially important as pollinators because they deliberately collect pollen to feed their young. Moths, butterflies and hummingbirds feed on nectar when they visit flowers, although they often transfer less pollen than bees.
Bees are also efficient because they don’t waste pollen by dropping it on the wrong flower; they exhibit a behavior called “flower constancy” which is a fancy way of saying they visit the same type of flower over and over again. This behavior is important for farmers and gardeners who grow large numbers of the same plant.
Americans depend on pollination by bees for more than 100 of our favorite fruits, vegetables and nuts. The meat and dairy industry rely on bee-pollinated grains, such as alfalfa, for animal feed.
The reality is that one out of every three bites of food we eat each day is the result of insect pollination. The commercial agriculture industry reports that pollination by the imported European honeybee accounts for more than $15 billion in increased crop values yearly, and pollination by native bees contributes approximately $3 billion annually.
Bees have been in the news a lot lately, unfortunately, both honeybees and native bee populations are in decline. The decline in honeybee populations has occurred due to Colony Collapse Disorder, the causes of which have not been clearly identified by researchers. Fewer beekeepers and increased disease issues also are to blame for the dwindling number of honeybees.
Sadly, native bees also made national news last month when approximately 50,000 bumble bees were killed by improper pesticide use on flowering ornamental trees in Oregon.
While North America is home to more than 4,000 species of native bees, habitat loss and indiscriminate pesticide use are blamed for declines and possibly even the extinction of some species.
According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, gardeners can help support all pollinators and especially bees by making a few simple changes to the way we garden:
Plant preferred flowering plants en masse to help support bee feeding habits.
Plant native landscape plants such as blueberries, Southern magnolia, native hollies and red buckeye for their excellent pollen and nectar.
Choose members of the mint family such as anise hyssop (Agastache spp), bee balm (Monarda didyma), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), and native spotted horse mint (M. punctata) for floral beauty and functional food sources.
Perennial natives such as purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium spp), and purple gayfeather (Liatris spp) are easy, reliable perennials that support bees and butterflies.
Annuals such as cosmos, sunflowers and zinnias attract honeybees and native bees alike and are inexpensive to start from seed.
Choose heirloom or open pollinated vegetable varieties.
Grow kitchen herbs such as thyme, basil, rosemary and lavender near the garden to encourage the most bee diversity.
Protect natural areas where native bees nest. According to the Xerces Society’s Conserving Pollinators: A Primer for Gardeners, “even patches of bare soil, piles of stone, and clump-forming grasses can provide enough nest habitat” in the urban or suburban landscape to support bees. Minimize tillage to protect ground nesting bees.
Reduce or eliminate pesticide use in the landscape. Even organic pest control products are effective insecticides that can kill bees. Spinosad and rotenone, common organic pesticides, are particularly dangerous for bees.
Typical lawn weeds such as clover, violets and dandelion provide excellent early season food for overwintering native bees. Set the mowing height a little higher and allow these “weeds” to flower to put a buzz in your garden.
For a complete list of pollinator friendly plants visit www.pollinator.org.
To learn more about bees and pollinator conservation visit www.xerces.org
Learn more about gardening and give back to your community through the Clemson Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Program.
Applications are now being accepted for the 2013-2014 Clemson Extension Tri County Master Gardener Volunteer Training Course.
The course will be begin Sept. 19 and will be held 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursdays for 12 weeks (except holidays) at the North Charleston City Hall.
Candidates must apply by Aug. 2. Candidate interviews will be Aug. 12-16.
For more details and to apply online, go to www.clemson.edu/extension/mg/counties/tri_county/.
Amy L. Dabbs is the urban horticulture extension agent and Tri-County Master Gardener coordinator for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.