5 Winter Tips For A Bee-Friendly Garden

You can create a bee-friendly garden even when winter's chill sets in by establishing habitats that cater to the native species.

by Jessica WalliserNovember 23, 2016
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

Pollination should be on the mind of every farmer. Without it, after all, our livelihoods would go down the drain. We’re dependent on pollinators to produce a broad diversity of crops, from blueberries and squash to cucumbers and strawberries. Encouraging these beneficial insects on the farm has never been so important. Many of North America’s 4,000-plus native bee species are suffering the ill effects of pesticide exposure and habitat loss, and because many of these guys are, bee-for-bee, more efficient pollinators than European honeybees, we should be doing all we can to support them. To aid in your efforts, here are five ways to pump up pollination on your farm.

1. Intercropping

Instead of planting row after row of zucchini or tomatoes, interplant vegetable crops with pollinator-friendly flowers. The more flowers you have around, the more pollinators will hone in on your field. Rows of flowering annuals and herbs should be alternated with crop rows, and perennial flowers should be planted around field edges, in ditches and along fencerows.

2. Don’t Mulch Everywhere

Seventy percent of native bee species nest in small holes in the ground, and unlike honeybees or ground-dwelling yellow jacket wasps, most of them live alone (though a few are social and form small colonies). These native bees won’t set up shop in mulched areas; they need barren soil, particularly in sunny areas and on south-facing slopes. Although the exact type of soil and sunlight exposure is specific to each species of bee, leaving bare, exposed soil in some places greatly increases your chances of success.

3. Create Tunnel-Nesting Habitat

The species of native bees that don’t nest in the ground nest in tunnels. Females build brood chambers inside hollow stems, tree cavities, old rodent burrows and other small tunnels. To encourage them, plant hollow-stemmed perennials and shrubs, such as brambles, elderberries, teasels, bee balm and others, and allow the plant’s foliage to stand year-round. Instead of cutting perennial stems to the ground in the fall or spring, cut them down to 12 inches, leaving the foot-tall stubble as nesting sites for subsequent years.

4. Build Brush & Rock Piles

Many bees look for nesting sites that are protected by brush or rock piles. Blueberry, tomato and cranberry growers will want to encourage bumblebees, as they’re the primary pollinators for these crops. Bumblebees are social nesters that live in small colonies underground or in cavities. Piles of brush and rocks provide prime nesting sites for bumblebees, as they also encourage chipmunks and other rodents, and while the rodents themselves might not be welcome, the old burrows they leave behind are prime real estate for bumblebee nesting.

5. Cut Out The Pesticides

Pesticide use on your farm is a major threat to pollinators. Keep both conventional and organic pesticides away from pollinators and their nesting habitats. Herbicides should also be avoided, especially if they’re used on the plants pollinators rely on for forage or nesting sites. Pesticides also impact the populations of other beneficial insects that can naturally reduce plant-munching pests. Thankfully, the pollinator-friendly habitat you create is also welcoming to these beneficial insects, cutting down on the need for further pesticide use.

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If you must use pesticides, do so only when pollinators are not active and follow the label instructions carefully. Do not apply pesticides to a crop when it’s in bloom. Another alternative is to apply it at night, when bees are not active, but keep in mind that many pesticides (even organic ones) have residual toxicity and may harm pollinators for hours or even days after they’re applied. Systemic pesticides are huge no-nos around pollinators, as they’re absorbed into the plant’s tissue and may harm bees as they forage on nectar and pollen.