How you can help the bees help themselves

From apples to almonds to the pumpkin in our pies, we have the bees to thank. Bees do more than making honey—they help pollinate some of our favorite foods: Apples, cherries, citrus, avocados, almonds, broccoli, onions, blueberries, carrots, melons, pumpkins, cranberries, and cucumbers to name just a few. About one-third of garden fruits and vegetables and the flower seeds harvested from gardens are the result of pollination by honeybees. Cross-pollination help at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of our wild plants to thrive. Genetic diversity is key to the survival of many plants. Without bees to pollinate, many plants—including food crops—would simply die off. (Adapted from: E.O. Wilson, Forgotten Pollinators, 1996.)

So, you may ask, “What can you do to help? I live in the city, not on a farm. How can I possibly raise bees?” There is plenty that every person can do to help the honeybee. Planting a pollinator-friendly landscape, using organic methods of gardening and landscape care, supporting your local beekeepers at the farmers market, and yes, raising your own honeybees are just a few ways everybody can help save these important pollinators. Living in the city does not preclude you from raising honey bees, New York City has a thriving beekeeping community. (Bee Friendly in 2019).

Pollinator Friendly Landscaping

Having a honeybee friendly landscape and garden means it is also beneficial for other insect pollinators and wildlife such as butterflies and hummingbirds. When planning your pollinator garden and yard consider the entire growing season. For the most part, pollinators can only extract nectar from a plant when it is flowering. There are plants that “sweat” a protein rich, sugary substance from their leaves called “Extrafloral Nectar.” (A great example is Linden or Basswood trees, people hate parking their cars under them when they are “leaking” from their leaves.) This is usually a form of protection by the plant, it is not part of the pollination process, but honeybees will use this extrafloral nectar in a pinch.

Plants have evolved to produce an abundance of spring flowers to guarantee pollination from a relatively small number of pollinators. Later in the year, an increased volume of pollinators guarantees the pollination of the relatively fewer summer flowers. It’s best to provide a range of plants that will offer a succession of flowers and blossoms through the entire growing season. By choosing plants that flower at different times of the year not only keeps your gardens looking lively and beautiful but it can supply food for the bees during critical times of the year when the natural flora is not blooming.

We live in the Pacific Northwest near Puget Sound. In our own landscape we have planted fuchsias, salvia, catmint, sedums (Autumn Joy), various stonecrop, Kiwis, blueberries, and flowering shrubs such as the Ceanothus “wild lilac” or “blue bee bush”, White Cascade Lily of the Valley because the bees love them. Our herb garden is designed specially to include what the bees love; oregano, chives, basil, chamomile, mint, sage, thyme, lavender, and Tuscan Blue Rosemary. The herb garden blooms from spring through summer and is always abuzz with bees (Knee Deep in “GooBees”). Our vegetable garden has morphed into a strawberry field with lots and lots of strawberries. They bloom for months and are close to our backyard hives, so our girls don’t have far to go. We also plant a lot of basil in the vegetable garden because the we eat a lot of basil and the bees love it. We planted a row of lavender in front of 3 of our backyard hives. The blackberries planted themselves and the bees love them also. Plus, we have a smattering of wild fireweed.

Late winter/early spring the maples in our start to bloom. While we may not think of maple trees as an important bee tree, the honeybee does. Honeybees are resourceful and take advantage of all the food sources available to them, including maple trees. (Due to weather conditions, maple honey is rare in the Pacific Northwest but when you get it, it is delicious.) Our golden willow is a springtime favorite as well. Our neighbors have a row of Linden (Basswood) trees that bloom from late June through mid-July. These are very fragrant trees and our girls love them. (Linden trees produce copious amounts of nectar and a large hive can put on 100 lbs. of Linden honey in two weeks)

In our flower beds we plant tons of sunflowers, alyssum, sweet peas and ornamental goldenrod. Attracting honeybees is simple. Just be sure to plant flowers that are bluewhiteyellow, or purple in your garden as these are the favorites in a honeybee garden.

Water Sources

Whether you have backyard hives or not, honey bees need a dependable source of water year-round. Therefore, it’s essential to include a water source in your honeybee garden. Honey bees drink water like the rest of us, but they also use it for other important purposes. Honey bees use water to dissolve crystallized honey as well as to thin honey that has become too thick and viscous especially in winter. In summer, they spread droplets of water along the edges of brood comb, and then fan the comb with their wings. This rapid fanning sends up air currents that evaporate the water, cooling the hive to the correct temperature for raising brood. A hive can consume anywhere from a quart to a gallon of water on a hot day.

You will want a water source that won’t go dry in the summer, won’t drown the bees, and isn’t shared with pets or other animals. This is especially true if you have hives of your own or are planning to install them. We recommend you establish your water source before your bees need it. Bees are creatures of habit and you want them to have a constant source established that is not your neighbors pool or hot tub. We have set up various watering stations for our bees. We set up chicken water dispensers near our backyard hives as well as several shallow bird baths filled with rocks and sea shells. This gives the bees a place to land and hold on to, so they don’t drown. You could use sponges, luffas, marbles, beads, sticks, corks etc.

Honeybees are attracted to water that we wouldn’t want to drink. While it seems logical to supply sparkling clean water for your bees, they will probably ignore it. They may choose stagnant ditch water, slimy flower pots, muddy holes, or a pile of wet leaves.  Smelly or slimy water sources have the advantage of containing a wide range of nutrients as well. Although a bee gets most of its nutrients from nectar and pollen, yucky water can be rich in vitamins and micronutrients that can boost a honeybee’s nutrition. Unfortunately for backyard beekeepers, they are also attracted to the smell of salt and chlorine, which are added to swimming pools and hot tubs.

Pest Control

Finally, organic pest controls in your garden. There many in-depth books about this subject for your area. Pesticides are indiscriminate killers, they kill harmful bugs as well as useful bugs and pollinators. Using pesticides can be a never-ending battle because when you spray a pesticide you kill off many of the beneficial bugs that can keep your specific pest at bay. As with any food chain many beneficial bugs eat the harmful bugs. If there are no harmful bugs to eat, the beneficial bugs die off. This allows the harmful bugs to procreate unchecked creating a bigger headache for you. It will take the beneficial bugs time to start thriving again to bring the population of the harmful bugs back down.

Resources for choosing honeybee friendly plants:

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