Over the past few years, it has become increasingly difficult to grow a bee-friendly garden. Gardeners found out that the plants many of us had been innocently buying from lawn and garden stores were coated in poisonous substances that might have been adding to the problem. Recently, Friends of the Earth and the Pesticide Research Institute put out a report on some of the nurseries across the country that are taking steps to raise plants differently. Some of the major retailers have committed to phasing out this practice in the future. The Growing Bee Friendly Report is an interesting read, if for no other reason than for the home gardener to gather ideas about how to raise plants without chemicals.
My husband and I are often asked to speak to local gardening clubs about what it means to garden for the bees. Most articles mention the flowers that bees prefer, and we enjoy sharing some of that information, but we have fun telling groups about the little extras we can do for this wonderful and essential bug.
1. Put Out Some Water
Did you know that bees need a drink of water just as much as the birds do who visit your garden? I’ve seen some creative drinking vessels, including old chipped tea cups. Truthfully, the same birdbath you might already have set out can do the job. We have one just outside my office window that we have converted for both bird and bee use. We keep the water clean and fresh, of course, but we also have several stones in the basin to give bees a place a stand while drinking. Stones need to be large enough—or small and piled together—to extend just above the surface of the water. Without the stones you will find that the bees easily drown.
2. Grow Some Mushrooms
This is a new bit of information I just gleaned from listening to mushroom expert Paul Stamets at the International Herb Symposium. It seems that honeybees benefit from being able to sip water from around the mycelium buried just beneath the soil, similar to the way they collect honeydew from plants. The benefits to this practice include increased ability to adapt to stress and antimicrobial actions in the body and hive of the bee. In talking with Paul, he emphasized to me that one of the best mushrooms to grow for this purpose is the reishi mushroom.
3. Leave The Weeds
Right now the white clover (Trifolium repens) and Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) are blooming on our farm. The bees love these flowers as they are abundant producers of nectar. The more we fight for pristine, weed-free gardens, the farther our bees have to fly in order to find food. In many cases, it’s not what we add to our garden but what we do not take away that helps the bees the most. If you must have a meticulous mulched area, designate an area of the yard as a pollinator island, where the weeds are allowed to grow.
4. Plant For The Bees
A good variety of garden plants, flowers and medicinal herbs is just what bees need. In general, it’s often said that bees prefer shades of purple and blue. In many cases this is correct, but the flower shape is also a factor. The honeybee tends to like to be able to fit her whole body into the flower. In the case of Rosa rugosa, you’ll see them rolling around like a dog on something smelly and singing a high pitched buzzy purr. Long tubes that give clearance such as the foxglove (Digitalis) is another place they love to go. In other flowers, they need a flat landing pad where they can sit as they sip, such as with the Echinacea spp.
Be sure to ask your nursery about their sources before you select a plant simply because of its shape or color. Where did they get the plant starts or seeds? If they grow the plants themselves, do they use chemical control methods?
With so many of us focused on the problem, it may get a little easier to find a good nursery in your area. You may need to allow for a few insect bites out of the leaves, or less unnatural, vigorous growth in the plants you bring home. The investment in a healthy garden that vibrates with the joy of bees is well worth the adjustment in our expectations.