My Milkshake Brings all the Bees to the Yard
(I’ll teach you, and I won’t even charge.)
So you’ve heard that we should save the bees, but you aren’t sure how to help? You can do a lot for your local honeybees and pollinators right in your own backyard! Cultivating a hospitable and bee-friendly yard for the honeybees is something we can all do, no matter what size space you have available. Follow the below suggestions, and by spring time next year you will have lots of new pollinating guests.
Provide a water source
Honeybees need water, and down here in Central Texas it’s not always easy for bees to find decent water sources. Something as simple as a chicken feeder, or better yet, a bird bath, will suffice! Make sure that you place stones or floating objects (such as sturdy branches) in the water. Bees can drown in extremely shallow water, and giving them a flotation device will help ensure their safety.
Let those herbs bloom
Got lots of herbs growing in your home garden? I bet you take great care to cut the flowering tops, thereby ensuring the plant expends its energy on the tasty leaves, and not on the flowers and seeds instead. Take stock of your herb inventory — can you dedicate a few of those herb bushes to the honeybees instead? Most herbs are a fantastic source of food and are quite beautiful in their blooming periods. If you plan to plant herbs for next year, plant one for you and one for the pollinators!
Choose your plants wisely
Honeybees require two sources of food to survive: nectar and pollen. Nectar is what sustains adult bees, and it’s ultimately what they use to create the honey we all enjoy. Pollen is combined with nectar and secretions from the bees to create what is known as “bee bread,” which is then fed to honeybee larvae. It’s critical that honeybees have access to as much nectar and pollen as possible. However, not all blooms are created equal. Some plants are booming sources of nectar or pollen, and others may have none at all. When choosing plants, ensure you choose natives and those plants best fit for your growing region, helping to ensure your plants thrive! Check out the Xerces society and their downloadable pollinator-friendly plant lists by region. Fall is generally the best season to plant most flowers, so put this on your to-do list now before winter arrives!
- Think consecutively, not concurrently. Your goal is to extend the ‘nectar flow’ — the period of time in which nectar is available for honeybees. Many parts of the northern United States only have one nectar flow per year, occurring in the spring. Here in Texas we are fortunate to have a strong spring flow, and generally a decent fall nectar flow as well. Find pollen and nectar producing plants that will bloom throughout the year, particularly during those hot summer and cooler fall months.
- Want a quick cheat sheet of the best bee-friendly plants? You can often identify if a plant is a good source of pollen or nectar simply be examining the color and appearance of the blooms. Look for blooms with stripes leading to the inside of the flower. Research has found that these stripes act as a sort of landing strip for the bees, leading them directly to the source of food. Of course, honeybees can see ultraviolet light, and so many of these stripes are undetectable to the human eye! Also look for blue, purple, yellow, and white blooms. Bees tend to prefer these colors over others.
- Plant flowers in clusters to attract more bees. Honeybees are superior foragers to other pollinators because they concentrate on exhausting the food source from a single plant before moving on to another type, providing excellent pollination services as they move from one bloom to the next.
Does this all seem daunting and more work than you bargained for? Seek out honeybee-friendly seed mixes native to your region, where the selection process is made easier for you. Our favorite for Texas? Native American Seed’s Bee Happy mix has 33 different wildflowers native to our region.
Insecticides are a no-no
Even if you forgo all my other suggestions, I ask you give this one serious consideration. Insecticides, particularly those containing neonicotinoids, are highly toxic to honeybees, and can persist in the soil years after a single application. While scientists have yet to make a direct link between neonicotinoids and the diminishing bee population in the United States, enough concerns exist to cause the European Union to enact a two-year ban on neonicotindoids in 2013. These pesticides are not only harmful to honeybees but can damage plants, helpful insects, and other native pollinators such as solitary bees and butterflies. If you have been using insecticides and are worried about how you will handle pests without them, please check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s list for resources on integrated pest management.
Keep in mind that many seedlings and plants purchased from major home improvement stores have been sprayed with neonicotindoids. Some retailers, such as Lowe’s, have committed to phasing out the use of nicotinoids, but it will be some years before the phase-out will be complete. Others, such as Home Depot, have started to require their suppliers to label whenever neonicotinoids are used. Your best bet? Shop local, and ask questions.
Appreciate the beauty of weeds
Many of the wildflowers and plants that we classify as weeds, such as dandelions and clover, are terrific sources of nectar and pollen for honeybees and other pollinators. Our bees are lucky here in Austin, as many folks choose to have flower and vegetable gardens in place of sterile, manicured lawns, or allow a portion or all of their yard to grow over a bit in lieu of a golf-course style grass. Embrace the beauty of all plants! Rather than continuing to weed out that garden, I encourage you to designate an area and let nature take its course. You never know what beauty may result with no work on your part!
Now that you’ve got a bee-friendly yard, don’t hesitate to appreciate your creation! Head outside on a sunny, warm day and observe your blooming plants. Chances are you will see lots of honeybees moving diligently from one bloom to the next. Don’t worry about exciting them — if you take the time to observe their behavior, you will see they are way too busy to stop and take notice of your presence. I guarantee you will have a brand-new appreciation for the phrase ‘busy bee’ after observing foraging bees in action. Enjoy your contribution to the health and survival of our honeybees!
Originally published at www.twohiveshoney.com on September 21, 2015.