• Gardening for Bees

    A Mason Bee. Photo: Nathaniel Sharp

    From the tiny corner lot to the hobby farm on the hill, bees are everywhere – and in need of our help. Recent work from VCE and others has shown worrying declines in bumble bee diversity and found more than 60% of all bees in Vermont were recently ranked as vulnerable or worse. Unlike Mountain Lions and Northern Goshawks, many bees can thrive in backyard environments when their habitat requirements are met.  Fortunately, there is a lot that homeowners can do to help. Read on to learn about a few specific actions (and sometimes inactions!) that can turn your backyard into a pollinator haven.

    The Don’ts
    A few things to avoid

    Don’t buy bees online – Many companies have started selling Mason Bees and other species to gardeners worried about a lack of pollination. The pollination effectiveness of imported bees is questionable, and there is a risk of spreading pathogens and parasites to the native bees already present. Read our recent press release here.

    Don’t plant invasive plants – Many of the worst invasive plants are illegal to buy or sell in the state. However, many other non-native species also pose risk to the local environment by competing with native plants and providing low-quality resources for pollinators. Familiarize yourself with these plants of concern, avoid adding them to your landscape, and consider removing those that are already present.

    Don’t spray unnecessary pesticides – Many bee-killing chemicals are readily available at department stores and garden centers for homeowners to use to keep pests at bay. Even organic or plant-based pesticides (e.g., Neem Oil) can have unintentional negative effects on beneficial insects. Before applying any spray or other pest control products, make sure you understand what the product is and consider the pros and cons. Most insecticides are likely to have negative impacts on bees/butterflies/other beneficial insects and may even pose health risks to humans. A diverse, healthy ecosystem full of native plants and insects is likely to be more resilient to pest outbreaks and shouldn’t need any chemical intervention. Contact your local extension office for more advice on using pesticides at home.

    Avoid treated nursery plantsMany nurseries use systemic pesticides, including Neonicotinoids to prevent unsightly insect damage. These chemicals also end up in the pollen and nectar, potentially for several years after it was treated, and have been shown to be poisonous to bees. Finding untreated plants can be hard – see our list of nurseries below and ask before you buy from an unknown supplier (many garden centers might not know, since they are buying from larger wholesalers). Pressure from consumers will be necessary to make headway on this issue.

    The Do’s
    From passive to involved, there’s something for everyone

    Leave the leaves – Leaves and other plant material (e.g., dead stems, woody debris) provide important nesting and overwintering sites for many different invertebrates, including bumble bees. In addition, organic debris feeds all sorts of small invertebrates that in turn are essential prey for other wildlife like songbirds and salamanders. If you must break out the leaf rake, mid-spring is best so overwinter bees have a chance to warm up and emerge. For more information about ‘leaving the leaves:

    No Mow May – Frequent lawn mowing can reduce the floral availability for bees and other pollinators. Consider the following alternatives. Less frequent mowing (or mowing with a high deck) can turn a sterile lawn into a miniature jungle of violets, strawberries, and other low-growing (or mow-tolerant) plants to thrive. However, many lawn flowers (e.g. dandelions) are non-native and not as nutritious for bees. Another alternative is to quit mowing altogether by converting portions of your lawn into a garden or meadow, (or even bare ground for nesting habitat) to provide even more benefits for bees. Learn more about No Mow May in Vermont here.

    Plant native plants – Vermont’s native insects and other wildlife evolved with, and are best adapted to, native plants. Any native plant is likely to have benefits for local wildlife, whereas many non-native plants do not provide essential resources for bees and other insects. Based on more than 20,000 interaction data points, we’ve assembled a list of plants that are important for many common bees and/or support specialists (the picky eaters), as well as native replacements for common spring flowers. If at all possible, look for native alternatives to ornamental non-native flowers.  Instead of buying tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), look for a VT native Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), or replace Kwanzan cherry (Prunus serrulata) with Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana).  Ideally, source your plants from local sources that don’t use systemic pesticides (see above).
    Remove invasives – Non-native plants don’t provide the same value to native bees, and many invasive shrubs can easily overrun forest understories or riparian areas. Learn a few of the common ones in your area and start removing them. Glossy Buckthorn, Japanese Knotweed, and bush Honeysuckles are notorious examples. Not the easiest endeavor, but an important part of restoring ecosystem function and resiliency.

    Connect with your community! In addition to helping the bees at home, you can use your voice to help encourage ‘bee-friendly’ habitat and behavior in any green space like your neighborhood, a homeowner’s association, the library, or the local town hall. Sometimes all it takes is someone to ‘speak for the bees’. Local bee lovers in MD recently changed local municipal ordinances by standing up to local mowing laws. Towns in Massachusetts have started passing native plant ordinances to encourage native street tree planting. By speaking up and connecting with your local community, your action can create lasting change to help reverse bee declines.

    Native plant sources
    Finding appropriate and affordable plants is the first challenge in a new pollinator planting. Breaking the ground and keeping the weeds at bay is the next big challenge, luckily much has been written on the topic. A few good places to source plants include:
    Local Conservation Districts: Many conservation districts organize plant sales, often as fundraisers. Most offer at least some native shrubs and fruit trees, though the selection might be less extensive and they aren’t guaranteed to be pesticide free. Likely the most affordable option.
    Northeast Pollinator Plants is a small nursery in Fairfax, Vermont that sells a wide range of flowering plants that are native to the region. Available for pick-up or mail order as young plugs. There are also other options throughout the state.
    As an alternative to buying young plants, several companies offer native seeds that you can grow yourself. Many have specific germination requirements that make them more involved than garden vegetables, but it’s a fun challenge and more economical (if you aren’t counting your time). A wider variety of seeds are available, many of which want to be planted in the fall, which can spread out the gardening season nicely. A few good seed sources include The Wild Seed Project and Prairie Moon Nursery.

    Finally, don’t discount fruit and veggies as important floral resources for native bees. Check out our new crop-specific bee guides here

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    Comments (5)

    1. Janice says:

      I plant a garden for us & plant other plants for bees & pollinators. Here are a few places that do natives or other beneficials: Perennial Pleasures, Stonehouse museum, Elmore Roots, High Mowing Seeds. I also leave wild flowers & “weeds” that the bees love & I love hearing them. I do a nongmo, organic, garden without any pesticides. I encourage my birds to stay & nest & they eat the bugs. Always best to plant for them as well as us. And variety does matter. Also water. Same good things we need.

    2. Mary Musty says:

      I would like to comment that Burning Bush is also a notorious invasive that is now seldom mentioned when
      mentioning invasives. I have seen it cover entire acres of neglected land, taking over native species’ habitats. It thrives in deep shade to full sun and throws off many many seeds which are spread by birds. Why is this invasive Burning Bush being ignored as the threat to the
      environment that it is?

      • Spencer Hardy says:

        Hi Mary, thanks for the comment, and I totally agree. Unfortunately there are way too many different invasive plants worthy of attention. For what it’s worth, Burning Bush is on the VT noxious weed list.

    3. wendy says:

      I thought dandelions were the first food source available to bees? Is that incorrect? What flowers do bees find early in the season that have the best nutritional value?
      Thank you so much!

      • Spencer Hardy says:

        Hi Wendy, there are lots of early spring flowers that come up with, or just before Dandelions. A few of the best early spring natives are Willows and Red Maples. Many of the spring ephemerals (Trout Lily, Spring Beauty, etc) are great bee food too.

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