University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article

THE "BEE"- FRIENDLY GARDEN

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 

Did you know that about one third of our garden fruits and vegetables, and the flower seeds we harvest from our gardens, are the result of bees? Having a garden "friendly" for bees means it is also friendly for many other beneficial forms of wildlife, such as butterflies and hummingbirds.

Of the 2,500 or more species of bees in the U.S., nearly all are gentle and won't sting you unless they feel threatened or provoked. This is not their goal. Nor is it to pollinate our flowers for our use. They don't chew up our flowers either, as some people believe. Rather, they are merely trying to find food for themselves and their young, or to gather home building supplies. In doing so, they end up pollinating our flowers, fruit trees, and shrubs.

The most common bees, especially early in the season, are the honeybees. As they hibernate for the winter, they must store plenty of honey. Bumblebees appear later in the season. Male bumblebees die after mating, the workers die at the end of the season, and so only the females survive. They hibernate in holes in the ground, old mouse nests, and similar places.

The worker honey bee collects pollen on brushy hairs, storing it in leg pockets. Worker bumblebees have a long proboscis to collect nectar, something other bees can't do. The other common bees are the solitary ones (Adrenidae family) that don't live in colonies.

Bees are attracted to flowers that are colorful or contrast well with their background, or have an ultraviolet coloration that serves as a nectar guide. This is especially true in the case of red flowers, which bees don't see unless they contain some ultraviolet light, which we usually don't see.

Purple and blue are bees' favorite colors, followed by yellow and orange. Many newer cultivars of flowers, especially annuals that have been highly bred, are deceptive to bees. Even though they may have attractive colors, they lack the pollen and nectar bees like, these traits having been bred out.

Examples of perennials attractive to bees include early spring bulbs such as glory-of-the-snow and crocus; clovers and milkweeds in the summer; and asters and goldenrod in the fall.  Try to grow some late-blooming asters, or cut your New England Asters back (remove about six inches of growth) in June, in order to have later flowers for bees.

I have one late-blooming aster (October Glory or Octendgloren) that each October is covered daily with bees as few other plants are available for them. Native plants and wildflowers provide good clues as to what your bees will like.

In addition to flowers, bees need a source of water if one is not nearby. A small pond, puddle, birdbath, or even dripping faucet fulfills this need.

Bees need protection from predators, a place to call home. Many bees live in old or dead wood, often in tunnels created by wood-boring beetles. This is true for most bees in the leafcutter bee family (Megachilidae). If you spot some elliptical holes in leaves on garden plants, they are likely from these bees gathering leaf pieces that they use for homes for their young.

So, think of these bees before cutting down dead trees, or even limbs. Or if you cut dead limbs, hang a few for some "holey" bee homes. Dead trees will also be attractive to several species of woodpeckers. In addition, many bees live in holes in the ground, so leave some bare ground for them in an out-of-your-way part of your yard or garden.

The final point crucial to bee survival is to not use pesticides that will harm them. Either avoid using pesticides, or if this is not possible, use midday or preferably after dark when bees are not active. And be sure to read all label directions. The label often will tell if the material will be toxic to bees. Remember that you usually have other, less toxic choices, so always choose the least toxic product for the job.


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