Einstein supposedly said, “If the bees disappeared from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years left to live.” Whether Einstein really said this has never been verified, but the comment is provocative. Are we really so dependent on bees?
Not exactly, says Keith S. Delaplane, a professor of entomology at the University of Georgia. According to Delaplane, 75 percent of our crops benefit from pollination by bees, but only 10 percent rely solely on insect pollination to produce fruit. Crops that are pollinated by bees typically produce lower yields than say, wheat, oats, or corn. In developing nations that rely heavily on grains, the loss of honey bees would hardly be felt.
In our country, though, we place an emphasis on a diet rich in vegetables and fruits. We are fortunate to have easy access to many crops that are pollinated by bees, such as almonds, apples, pears, strawberries, blueberries, watermelon, squash, and pumpkins. And don’t forget grapes, olives, onions, carrots, citrus fruits, and even chocolate. They all need insect pollination. Alfalfa, a major food source for cattle, also needs bees for pollination.
Without bees, our diets would become much more restricted. Whole agricultural economies would collapse. No doubt you’ve heard
about the honey bee crisis. Currently, honey bee populations worldwide are on the decline. Scientists suspect habitat destruction, pesticide use, and even disease are to blame. Recently, the European Commission banned certain pesticides that they believe are responsible for the bee crisis.
Bees At Home
Just as farmers and orchardists rely on bees for pollination, you rely on bees in the home garden. Sure, some crops can be hand-pollinated, but who really wants to do that? So, how can you protect bees and encourage them in your garden?
First, don’t use pesticides. Use natural means for controlling insects instead. Rotate your crops so they don’t grow in the same place twice. Use floating row covers to keep pests out. Hand pick pests and destroy them. If you must use pesticides, opt for organic ones that preferably don’t harm bees. Bacillus thuringiensis, for example, dispatches many caterpillars, but doesn’t harm bees when used properly. Follow package directions carefully and apply pesticides in the evening when bees aren’t active.
Another way to control insect pests is by encouraging natural predators to your yard. A small birdbath or pond offers water for birds, frogs, and snakes, all which can control pests. Shrubs, plants and trees provide shelter for these animals, as well as shelter for bees.
Finally, choose plants for your yard that attract bees. These are plants that produce nectar. Interplant herbs and flowers among your vegetables and plant flowering shrubs and trees in mixed beds. Below is a sampling of plants that attract bees.
Go Native. When you think of pollinating bees, you probably think of the European honeybee, which was imported to our country in the 1600s. But there are over 4,000 species of bees that are native to our country, as well as other wasps and pollinating flies. Some of these species are generalists and will gather nectar from any nectar-producing plant. Yet, many of them prefer native plants. In fact, Gordon Frankie, an entomology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has found that of the 1,000 plants growing in the university garden, only about fifty are natives. Of these 50 plants, 80 percent attract pollinators. Only 10 percent of non-native plants attract bees. When choosing plants for your garden, choose those your grandmother grew whenever possible. Not only will these native plants probably attract more bees, but they usually need less water and care to thrive. Natives include:
- Flowers: Rudbeckia, purple coneflower, Joe-Pye weed, coreopsis, larkspur, lupine, sunflower, blanket flower, yarrow, salvia, sedum, goldenrod, and milkweed.
- Berries: elderberry, blueberry, blackberry, and raspberry.
- Shrubs and trees: Native redbuds, sassafras, chokecherry, and serviceberry.
Plant Flowering Herbs. Flowering herbs, which are attractive to butterflies and bees, have many other benefits in your vegetable garden. They’re beautiful and fragrant, for one, and they also have culinary or medicinal value. Flowering herbs might also repel insect pests, deer, and rabbits in the garden. Try oregano, lavender, thyme, chamomile, basil, mint, marjoram, and dill if you enjoy kitchen herbs. Bees and bumblebees fairly buzz about catmint and bee balm.
Choose Flowering Trees. In addition to the natives mentioned above, many other trees attract pollinators. Most of these bloom in spring, so they won’t be of much use to your pumpkin or winter squash plants, but they are useful for pollinating fruit trees. Try the following:
- Crab apples and edible apples (don’t forget to plant two trees for pollination)
- Ornamental and edible plum and cherry trees
- Black locusts
- Black locust
- American Holly
- Mountain Ash
- Golden Rain
- Mountain Ash
Invest in Flowering Shrubs and Vines. Shrubs with edible fruit, such as elderberries, blueberries, and currants, have extra value, but many flowering shrubs and vines add beauty to your yard while encouraging bees. Butterfly bush and privet make fine landscaping plants that attract bees. Try training clematis, honeysuckle, or climbing roses over a trellis or fence.
Tips for Planting
Once you’ve selected a few bee-friendly plants, how you plant them can also make a difference. Plant flowering plants, such as purple coneflowers or sunflowers, near or even in the vegetable garden. Whenever possible, plant native plants in a grouping at least four feet wide, which tends to attract more bees than one or two specimen plants.
Most homesteaders focus on edible plantings in the landscape, but flowering plants have their place too. Flowering herbs and berries are especially practical and useful. Plant a few flowering plants this spring for a more productive, abundant vegetable garden, berry patch, and orchard.