In the inland empire of California is a vast stretch of hundreds of square miles of almond trees. Every spring 1.6 million beehives, 60% of the managed beehives in the country, are trucked to California to pollinate these almond trees. It is the largest pollination event on earth, and is responsible for 80% of the entire planet’s almond production. But why? Why must the bees be trucked in? For the time that the almond trees are in bloom that area is a cornucopia of bee delight. But what happens when the almond trees are not in bloom? It is essentially a desert for bees. Monocultures are not natural and while bees can fly over a mile from their hive for food, hundreds of square miles is too large of a distance, and if almond trees are the only things planted, then what is there to sustain the bees for the majority of the year when the trees are not in bloom?
There are other problems with this practice, such as by trucking a majority of all our commercial bees to one spot for a giant pollen party we facilitate the spread of disease, but this also serves as my introduction into how to grow a bee friendly garden. I’m providing you a real world example of what might seem to be bee paradise as an example of what not to do.
Feed the Bees
Many animals figure out how to survive when food is scarce. Some will pack on the pounds while food is plentiful, and then live off those reserves when food is scarce, others will store or hoard food in burrows or caches like a squirrel. Bees do a bit of both, storing the honey for when there is nothing in bloom, such as winter. However, bees need a full Spring, Summer, and Fall to put away the honey they need for a winter. A two week almond bloom is not going to generate enough to sustain them the rest of the year.
So the single most important thing you can do to make sure you have a bee friendly garden is to make sure there is something in bloom in your garden as close to year round as your climate can manage. This means you should absolutely positively plant the earliest spring flower you can find, which is likely going to be a crocus or a snowdrop, and also plant the latest fall flower you can think of, such as an aster or a mum. Those are all perennials but it’d also be helpful to plant annuals by starting them indoors and putting them outside as soon as they can take it, blooms at the ready, and leaving them out, blooming in full force, until the frost finally kills them.
There are also plants you probably don’t even think of as being flowering plants, such as maple trees, that can add to the bee’s diet. In general you just have to remember that within a mile of a hive bees more or less need something in bloom constantly straight on through from Spring to Fall.
Colony Collapse Disorder
You may have heard of this, colony collapse disorder, or CCD, before. Essentially, in recent years, for some reason, bee hives are dying and people do not know why. The science behind it is a little fuzzy or nonexistant, allowing people to attribute it to anything and everything under the sun. People who dislike pesticides say pesticides are causing it. People who dislike technology say it is cell phone and WIFI signals causing it. People who dislike genetic engineering say (stupidly) things like genetically engineered corn (which is wind pollinated natch) is causing it. One of the more interesting theories I’ve heard is that loss of bee habitat and or loss of wildflowers have caused it. If you think about it, a field of wheat or corn provides little sustenance to bees, and how much of the surface of the earth that may have once been a meadow filled with wildflowers is now wheat or corn? This doesn’t entirely make sense though because I’m sure apiaries (that is, bee keepers) don’t keep their hives in the middle of corn fields. And this wouldn’t explain why a bee hive, presumably kept surrounded by flowers, would collapse. However, what is indisputable is that bee populations are dropping and you can help prevent that by planting more flowers and doing other things discussed in this article.
Other Bee Friendly Steps
In addition to planting flowers that stretch their bloom periods for the full growing season, you also want to try to make mass plantings of such. Bees can’t find or can justify the energy to find a single crocus blooming, but a vast swath of crocuses will be worth the trip. So try to plant a square yard of each of the plants you choose to provide for bees, ideally close together so the bees don’t have to go very far to find the next bloom.
You should also try to limit the spraying of insecticides, obviously, since bees are insects. You can still spray but you shouldn’t spray while the bees are active, which generally means only spray later in the afternoon and try not to spray flowers or plants that are actively flowering.
Bees also like a drink of water, water features can help attract bees (and other wildlife). If you can’t put in a pond or fountain, a simple bird bath can help.
Also don’t hate on weeds so much, and considering naturalizing your lawn with something like white clover, which bees love, which benefits lawns and lawn-owners in many ways. See the link for more information on that.
You can also of course get your own beehive. Beekeeping is not that expensive to start with, if you can build your own hive the other equipment could be had for around $100, and that single hive could give you as much as 50 pounds of honey. But if you’re not ready for that step, simply providing habitat for all the neighborhood bees will be helpful.
What about all those stingers
Bees, and honeybees in particular, are not really aggressive, they just want to be left alone, and they will leave you alone. Obviously people with a diagnosed allergy to bee stings need to be extra careful but for most of us just don’t both them and they won’t bother you. You can not plant bee favorites right by walkways or sitting areas, but otherwise special attention isn’t really necessary.
You don’t need to merely make a bee friendly garden out of the kindness of your heart, you can do it for entirely selfish reasons. If you grow any sort of food crop that is bee pollinated, the bees you attract should increase your yields. I get questions all the time from gardeners growing squash of some sort saying the female blossoms just die off and never develop – which means they weren’t pollinated, which means you need more bees. And certainly if you have an apple tree (which everyone should have) you’d rather see it crammed with apples rather than sparsely covered.
Bees and their cousins also tend to keep undesirable insects at bay, the more beneficial insects you have, the less bad insects you usually have. Plus you get to enjoy all the same flowers as bees do.
Which flowers are best?
There are numerous lists of bee friendly flowers out there, and more or less, any flower is a good flower for bees. Some are more suited for different types of bees though because of the flower shape or depth. In addition to the aforementioned crocuses, snowdrops, white clover, mums, and asters, I want to give a mention to silver dollar plants, which also bloom very early in the Spring, and of course all the other bulbs.
In addition though, here are some plants which I have noticed honeybees specifically loving in my own garden: sedum (all types, but especially upright ones blooming in late summer/fall). privet (known for a hedge but has lilac like blossoms), boston ivy (yes, it flowers, and the bees love it), scabiosa, butterfly bush (butterflies and bees generally like the same things), coneflowers, and roses (but more open ones without so many petals that the flower internals are hard to see). Generally if it is fragrant, it is a good bet, and if it has open easily accessible pollen, it is a good bet.
Then all the flowering trees are also good ideas, as I said above, bees like a cluster of flowers so they can just hop from bloom to bloom, and what provides that more than a whole tree covered in blooms. So any of the edible or ornamental flowering trees (especially considering they flower in Spring when so little else is in bloom) are a good idea to plant.
Otherwise I’ll assume you, or your neighborhood, already has flowers available for the bees during the long days of Summer, so don’t put too much thought into what to plant in those months. Try to focus though on specifically providing some sort of flowering plant in Spring and Fall as those are the months when food might otherwise be scarce for our friends, the bees.