Spring has already come to many areas of North America. Friends in Virginia are in short sleeves celebrating the dandelion surge and catching swarms, while here in upstate New York folks are still in their fleece pullovers, starting seeds indoors while dandelions are just barely showing their leaves. The only thing in bloom is the cherry tree, though it’s been full of bees on those rare warm days. All around me home-bound neighbors are planning their gardens. It’s one thing we can do for sanity, solace, and - well, food security. Speaking of…
It’s no secret that at least half of beekeeping is in the garden… to avoid feeding sugar (which is hard on their digestion, making them susceptible to diarrhea and nosema) it’s important to provide natural forage throughout the bees’ foraging season. So it’s absolutely true that non-beekeepers can play a meaningful role in the care of a region’s bees! If a beekeeper only has their own yard to work with but their bees go in a 3-mile radius, that means that wherever you are, a thoughtful garden may be a great boon to neighboring bees.
So about that garden: There are a few simple rules of thumb (okay five).
The first and most important is: Use Pesticide-Free Plants and seeds.
Any pesticide, especially those containing neonicitinoids, create nervous system problems including inability to move or relocate their hive after foraging, and other forms of what looks like dementia in humans. While the cause of Colony Collapse is “unknown” to scientific researchers, we do know that one of the hallmarks is bees abandoning what appears to be a healthy hive. Now I’m just one beekeeper but I’m not alone in thinking that if they go out and get all hopped up on disorienting pesticides they may not find their way home. And those that do wend their way back, will bring that pesticide-laden nectar and pollen into the hive - which means into the wax, the honey supply, the guts of other bees and the food fed to the brood.
Some (but not all) big-box and grocery stores have begun phasing neonicitinoids out of their garden centers. Others have begun to label them, but this is not consistent.
Be aware: the lack of a label does not mean it's pesticide free! So depending where you're shopping you may need to ask a manager to be sure. The surest way to be sure your plants are free of pesticides is to choose organic or biodynamic growers (list below). Bear in mind that organic growers can still use pesticides on part of their property, but it's still a better bet than conventional.
The second rule of thumb is:
Keep the “pantry” stocked.
Try to have bee-friendly forage in bloom throughout the season. The reason monocultures don't work for pollinators is that many bloom seasons only lasts a few weeks. Some plants offer nectar at different times of day, many are affected when it’s damp, and so on. Variety is not only pleasing to the eye, it makes sure our friends have something to eat at all times.
The Third thumb is:
Balance variety with volume, and think big. This doesn’t mean you need mammoth plants or a whole acre in wildflowers (though if you have the space, by all means!)… it means that whatever plants you choose, put in several of each variety. Close observation of the honeybee shows us that on each foraging journey, she is faithful to one kind of plant. So if you have tulips and salvia and she goes to the salvia first, she will stay on the salvia until her crop and pollen baskets are full. She will not hop from one flower variety to another on one voyage (you can see why this makes her such an effective pollinator).
Fourth and Fifth:
Look around you.
What’s in your neighborhood that the bees loved last year? What are your neighbors already growing? Do you want to plant more of it, or does it free you up to choose a different variety? Hmmm. Kind of depends on whether their garden is pesticide free…
...Talk to your neighbors.
Saving the bees is a great way to come together as a community while staying apart as individuals (take heart; one fine day these corona references will be outdated. In the meantime, everyone's clamoring for some outdoor activity they can do close to home).
Do your neighbors also have pollinators in mind? Perhaps they’re interested in collaborating to expand the offerings, or letting their dandelions flourish (pollinator-friendly yard signs are great conversation starters). Maybe they never really thought about it before and will find it a welcome way to join a force of positive change while getting exercise, sun, and fresh air!
Final thoughts: Which plants do bees love? A quick google will provide a list of bee-friendly plants in your region. Fortunately my bee-teachers at Spikenard Farm Honeybee Sanctuary have compiled this fabulous list of plants that tend to do well across the US: https://spikenardfarm.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/BeeForagePlants.pdf
Below: resources for pesticide-free nurseries and organic/biodynamic seed purveyors
National retailers and their neonic commitments/policies:
Organic and Biodynamic Seeds known to the author:
(specifically pollinator forage) https://spikenardfarm.org/store/category/products/
(search “pollinator” or specific plants) https://www.highmowingseeds.com/
(search “pollinator” or specific plants) https://hudsonvalleyseed.com/
(search “pollinator” or specific plants) https://turtletreeseed.org/