by Ken Lain, the mountain gardener
Bees are essential pollinators, pollinating about a third of our nation’s crops. We would have far fewer food options without these little workhorses, but bees are in trouble and local gardeners can help them.
Bees rely on wildflowers, and some or our traditional agricultural practices have been traded for industrial techniques that increase crop productivity at the cost of our country’s wildflowers. Consequently, a decline in wildflowers results in a decline of bee populations. As of May 2015, the United States and its territories have nine species of bees declared ‘Possibly Extinct’ and 22 other species in critical peril. (For the entire list of endangered species visit: The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.) Other threats such as pesticides and infectious microbes also have been linked to the decline of bees. The issue of bees becoming extinct is real and becoming more serious.
So, you ask, how can we few backyard gardeners help the bees? Whether a large garden or just a balcony draped in hanging boxes, every garden counts. There are many nectar and pollen-rich plants that bees access from now to early autumn, a crucial time in a bee’s calendar. If you notice bees enjoying a mystery plant in your garden, breakout the camera phone! From that photo Watters’ experts can identify the plant. You now will be one plant more knowledgeable about bees and better enabled to make a difference.
When bees visit a plant they look for two things: A plant’s sugary nectar, which is their main source of energy, and its pollen, which provides bees’ diets with proteins and fats.
Choose the Right Flowers. To help bees and other pollinating insects like butterflies, moths, flower flies, and hummingbirds, provide them with a range of plants that bloom at different times. This enables your garden to provide pollen and nectar for the entire season. Patches of foraging habitat can be created in many different locations, from backyards and school grounds, to golf courses and city parks. Even the smallest area planted with the right flowers benefits wild bees. Each flowering patch adds to the mosaic of grazing habitat available to sustain each colony.
Bees are much like people in that they have favorite foods; that’s why they are more often noticed on their favorite plants than on others. Here is the list of local favorites: aster, black-eyed Susan, bugloss, butterfly bush, comfrey, currant, box elder, fruit trees, goldenrod, Joe-pye weed, lupine, Oregon grape, penstemon, coneflower, purple leaf plum, rabbit-brush, rhododendron, rosemary, Russian sage, salvia, snowberry, sedum, sunflower, buckwheat, lilac, and willow. This is the short list of pretty plants that attract bees. Of course, when plants are in bloom, bees will show you the flavors that are their favorites!
Tip – To help choose plants for bees in your garden, look for the plants bees are pollinating here at the garden center.
Don’t use harsh synthetic pesticides on flowers. Most pesticides are non-selective. They will kill beneficial bugs along with the pests. If you must use a pesticide, start with the least toxic and follow the label instructions to the letter. We have organic experts here at Watters who can help you choose the right control for the job ~ without harming bees, hummingbirds, or your pets.
Color Favorites. Bees have good color vision to help them find the flowers with the
nectar and pollen they prefer. Flower colors particularly attractive to bees are blue, purple, violet, white, and yellow. Plant a sampling of each that blooms at different times of the year.
Plant in Clumps. Flowers of one variety clustered in a clump will attract more pollinators than individual plants scattered throughout the landscape. Where space allows, make the clumps at least four feet in diameter.
Include flowers of different shapes. There are 4000 different species of bees in North America alone, and each is a different size with different tongue lengths that feed on different shapes of flowers. Providing a range of flower shapes increases the numbers of local bees that can benefit from your beautiful yard.
Diversity of plants. Most species of bees are generalists, feeding on a range of plants during their life cycles. By having several plant species flowering at the same time, with a sequence of plants flowering through spring, summer, and fall, you can support the varieties of bees that visit at different times of the year. We even have winter-blooming flowers that feed bees during their most desperate season.
Plant where bees visit. Bees favor sunny spots over shady areas and need some shelter from strong winds and rain.
Albert Einstein said: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would only have four years to live”.
Let’s be kind to bees.
Until next week, I’ll see you at the garden center.
Ken Lain can be found throughout the week at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Rd in Prescott, or contacted through his web site at