Columns, In the Garden

Building Habitat for Bees

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NORTHFIELD – Bees are critically important pollinators to support and protect. Along with other insects, bees are essential components of agriculture by pollinating fruits, vegetables and other crops. 

photo by Bonnie Kirn Donahue
The striking orange flowers of the butterfly weed attract many pollinators, including several species of bees.

Pollinator habitat is declining as a result of large-scale agriculture and urbanization. This trend destroys natural bee habitats like grasslands and prairies, replacing them with crops, lawns and impervious surfaces. While this is reality, there are lots of things to do to build habitat for bees.

First, consider reducing mowing. Mowing less means that flowering plants have the opportunity to establish and bloom, which provides more food for pollinators.

Get comfortable with lawns looking a little higher and less kempt. The expectation that lawns be mowed short is a social/cultural construct, and it is worth considering how this concept serves us today. 

One small way to challenge this is to only mow the areas that are used. Another idea is to mow around areas in the lawn that have flowers growing. This will allow pollinators like bees to feed on them and cut that spot next week!

photo by Bonnie Kirn Donahue
Postponing, or not mowing at all, around lawn areas with flowers in bloom will help create habitat and food for bees.

Next, embrace weeds. Flowers like dandelions, clover, milkweed and goldenrod get a bad reputation as being weeds or a nuisance. In fact, weeds are just plants that are unwanted in a given area.

Native flowering plants, including milkweed, goldenrod and many others, provide important food sources and energy for native bees and insects. Allowing them to grow among other intentionally planted species is a great way to help out.

Planting native, flowering plants is another way to support bees. Try to maximize the amount of time flowers are in bloom by selecting multiple species that flower from early spring to late fall. 

Another good idea is to grow plants with hollow stems. Plants such as goldenrod, joe pye weed, milkweed, elderberry and ornamental grasses have hollow, pithy stems that some bees use to lay eggs in to overwinter.

photo by Bonnie Kirn Donahue 
A number of different species of flowers suitable for Vermont gardens, including the purple coneflower, provide important food sources and energy for native bees and insects.

Plan ahead for fall and test out leaving the dead stems and twigs of these plants and others through the winter, and cut them back the following spring. This practice will help baby bee larvae survive the winter.

While some bees nest in hollow stems, others lay their eggs in the ground or in dead wood. Instead of clearing and manicuring our lawns and gardens completely of dead material, think about areas where you can leave dead wood, decaying leaves or even small areas of exposed soil.

 Bees and other pollinators also need access to water. Place a shallow dish of water in garden beds with a few rocks that rise just above the surface of the water for pollinators to perch on. Just like a bird bath, bees and other insects will be grateful for this local source of water.

Buy or build bee houses to place near your garden. Check out this in-depth resource from University of Michigan Extension for more information go.uvm.edu/bee-hotels.

Finally, to celebrate National Pollinator Week (June 17-23), consider learning more about bees and their preferred habitats. On June 22, a consortium of organizations and businesses called the Vermont Pollinator Working Group has planned a daylong event with expert presentations and resources on native bees and pollinator habitats at the University of Vermont Horticultural Research Center in South Burlington. Learn more at pollinatorcelebrationday.rsvpify.com.

Each of us can try little changes in our personal and community gardens to build and support bee and pollinator habitat.

Bonnie Kirm Donahue

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