Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ June 2016

More Bees, Please!  Your Garden Choices Matter

By Carole A. Barth

According to the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, honeybees have been in serious decline for more than three decades in the United States.  And the headlines about collapsing honeybee populations just keep coming.  On 12 May 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that there are 8% fewer managed (i.e., not wild) colonies in the U.S. then there were last year.  That may not sound like much, but USDA estimates that domestic honeybees pollinate $10 billion of crops in the U.S. each year.  These crops account for up to a third of the U.S. diet.  Without pollination, our diet would be limited to meat and grains.

Thus, there are a number of programs underway to protect honeybees.  For example, concerns over pesticide impacts on bee populations have led to state and local legislation limiting the use neonicotinoid pesticides.  These synthetic nicotine pesticides turned out to be especially toxic to bees.  However, few people know much about our native bees and the important agricultural and ecological roles they play.

Honeybees cannot pollinate tomato or eggplant flowers, and are poor pollinators of pumpkins, cherries, blueberries, and cranberries.  Native bees, however, are very efficient pollinators of these crops as well as apples, squash, watermelons, berries, and many more.  Native bees are also known to forage for longer periods of time than honeybees and to forage in wet or cold conditions when honeybees stay in the hive.  So, native bees can provide some “pollinator insurance” in a time of declining honeybee populations.

Besides being agriculturally important, native bees are critical to healthy ecosystems.  Native bees pollinate the native plants that in turn support our native wildlife.  In fact, even the grizzly bear needs bees.  In late summer, fruit makes up more than 60% of a grizzly’s diet.  By helping to keep plant communities healthy and sustainable, native pollinators help provide food and cover for wildlife, prevent erosion, cycle nutrients, and keep waterways clean.

As such, they are keystone species.  Keystone species have a disproportionately large effect on their ecosystems relative to their abundance.  Such species play a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community, helping to determine the types and numbers of various other species in the community.

Over 400 species of native bees have been documented in Maryland.  In addition to the familiar bumble bee, native bees include blue orchid bees, leaf-cutter bees, sweat bees, carpenter bees, squash bees, plasterer bees, blueberry bees, cuckoo bees, mason bees, yellow-faced bees, Andrenid bees, and digger bees.

What you can do to help native bees:  Supporting wild bees is much simpler than keeping honeybees.  First, reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides in your yard, especially neonics.  If you must use a pesticide, select it from the Xerxes Society list of Organic-Approved Pesticides to minimize the risk to bees.

Secondly, provide flowers for foraging bees (see suggestions below).  Lastly, provide host plants or nests where they can reproduce.  You can buy or make simple bee houses, but you can also make space for bees just by tolerating some untidiness in the garden.  Open, sandy soil, brush piles, old stumps, and dead flower stalks all can be important nursery habitat for nesting bees.

Bee-Friendly Native Plants

Here are some bee-friendly native plant suggestions from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.  Some early blooming plants that are excellent choices for bees include black willow (Salix nigra), Canada serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), high bush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), and wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis).  The most attractive mid-season blooming plants are sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), early goldenrod (Solidago juncea), and culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum).  Attractive late-season plants include Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), white meadowsweet (Spirea alba), and asters (Symphyotrichum spp.).  You can also download the “Bee Smart” pollinator gardener app to select plants appropriate for your zip code.

Meadows make great pollinator habitats.  Established meadows have high plant diversity, which means a variety of flower shapes and bloom times.  This variety supports different types of bees throughout the growing season.  Bunch grasses (as opposed to turf-type grasses) allow some exposed soil for ground-nesting bees.  However, meadow maintenance does need to be adjusted for pollinator protection.  Instead of mowing the meadow all at once, only a portion should be mowed each year, to ensure sufficient habitat for pollinators remains.

So now that you know more about native bees, participate in Pollinator Week, 20-26 June 2016, and celebrate the critical (but often overlooked) native bees.  And next time you see a bumble bee in your garden, say thanks!   ■

   © 2016 NFCCA  [Source:]