In 2006, an alarm sounded concerning the health of honeybees when a Florida beekeeper discovered 400 of his hives were empty. Similar reports about disappearing bees came in from across the country.
Even though historical records tell us these insects have abandoned hives over the centuries, researchers were concerned because so many bees were vanishing so quickly. They feared a new disease was to blame.
Colony Collapse Disorder was the name given the decline, and over the years, fingers have been pointed at many potential culprits including parasitic mites, pesticides, immune system issues, stress from overwork, and poor nutrition.
After extensive research it appears CCD is a multi-pronged condition with no singular cause. But because a large percentage of the world’s flowering plants depend on pollinators, the search for answers continues.
Home gardeners can land a hand
Various species of bees, along with moths, butterflies, birds, bats and other animals are pollinators. The pollen (powderlike material from the male parts of flowers) they move between flowers of the same species results in fertilization, enabling plants to produce blooms, seeds or fruits.
Gardeners can play an important role in helping pollinators like bees increase their numbers by offering essential food, water and shelter. Even those who don’t have a garden can participate by planting window boxes and containers with bee favorites.
The first step is to choose plants for your garden that supply a diversity of nectar and pollen throughout the growing season. Bees are partial to plants living in their own habitats, so choose wildflowers and natives whenever possible. Not sure which natives flourish near you? Visit www.pollinator.org, type in your zip code on the Planting Guide page, and you’ll be able to download a PDF with specific recommendations for your area.
There is also a helpful Bloom Period guide so you can have something flowering from spring to fall. Native plant societies can offer additional guidance.
If natives aren’t readily available, you can find bee-approved choices at most local nurseries and garden centers. (Before buying, ask if their plants have been bred with neonicinoids, pesticides that can harm bees.) Pesticide-free verbena, rudbeckia, yarrow, salvias, coneflowers and flowering herbs are all good choices. Catmints are particularly useful because they will continue to bloom deep into fall with regular trimming.
Heirlooms from grandmother’s garden such as daisies, hollyhocks, asters, and old-fashioned roses are especially attractive to bees. (Flat flowers like daisies and single roses make it easier for bees to collect pollen.) Even veggies can be part of the plan: pollinators will make a beeline for cucumber and squash flowers.
Colors and clusters
Entomologists studying bees have learned they can see four colors – yellow, blue, bluish green (which is how they view white) and violet. They perceive red as black. So when considering plant varieties, your palette should include the blue, yellow and purple flowers bees find appealing.
Choose a sunny location and set out your plants in groups. Again, be sure to stagger bloom times so there will be food available throughout the year. And avoid using pesticides that can be toxic to bees.
Water and shelter
Although we rarely see them taking a drink, bees appreciate gardens that offer a source of water. It can be as simple as filling a shallow dish with small stones and twigs so bees can land and rest while drinking. A birdbath also offers a dependable destination for bees to take a sip when necessary. Be sure to use clean, chemical free water, and replace supplies regularly.
According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, there are over 5,000 different species of native or wild bees living in the US. These bees don’t live in hives like honeybees but in logs, dead tree limbs, even in holes in the ground.
As part of the garden, leave an area of bare dirt for ground nesters. You can even build your own shelter by drilling holes in an untreated wood block. The holes should be 3” to 5” deep and approximately ¼” in diameter. Allow an inch between each hole. Choose a site for your “nest” that is protected as much as possible from wind and rain, under the eaves of a shed, for example.
These habitats, along with access to water and bee friendly plants will create an environment that will soon have your local pollinators buzzing.
I first wrote this article in March, 2015 for The Christian Science Monitor.