Pollinator Gardens: Part 1

The Bees

To say that honeybees and other pollinators are important is quite an understatement. Much of the food we eat relies on pollination from bees. The honey bee, apis mellifera, imported from Europe in the 1600s, is probably the best known bee. There are many species of native bees, including Mason bees and bumble bees. You may have heard that the bee population is in decline. This is true for all types of bees, especially native bees. By planting a pollinator garden you will be helping all of your neighborhood bees.

Solitary versus social bees

Some bees are solitary, such as Mason bees, where each female lays eggs and lives independently. The female lays her eggs in a small hole in a tree or in the wood siding of a house. Honeybees and bumble bees are social bees. They live in a colony and rely on each other to perform specific tasks. The bees can't survive without the colony, and only one female, the queen, lays her eggs.

Honey bees, pollen & nectar

Bees collect pollen and nectar from flowers. Both of these are food sources that are processed by the bees and stored back at the hive. 

Pollen, the tiny grains made by the male part of the flower, need to reach the female part of the flower for a seed to form, causing pollination. While collecting food from the flowers, bees help with pollination by transferring pollen from one flower to another. 

Bees use flower's sweet nectar to make honey. The bees process the nectar at the hive, using enzymes and evaporation to create honey. The honey is stored in the comb as a future source of food for the young bees, and to sustain the bees during winter. 

The Garden

Now that you know a bit about the importance of bees, pollen and nectar, let's talk about how to create a habitat for bees. 

Garden location:  In weighing the aspects of the area you're planting, be sure there is adequate sunshine. The plants and the bees both will benefit. The bee garden doesn't have to have a lot of space. The plants in this collection can grow closely together or in pots, as long as they receive 6-8 hours of direct sun. 

Preparing the ground: If your proposed planting area has grass or other vegetation, you may want to cover the area with black plastic or an old carpet to kill the weeds first. Burlap bags are usually very cheap and also work great as they will decompose while suppressing weeds. This is a natural method that doesn't rely on harsh herbicides. The more we can reduce the use of chemicals in our gardens, the better the bees and other pollinators will be.  

Planting for honey bees: It may be tempting to mix a variety of seeds together for planting, but bees prefer to work large patches of the same type of flower at a the same time. When an individual plant is producing nectar, a foraging bee will return to the colony informing other bees of the plants location. Having large individual areas, or drifts, of one plant will ensure the bees get the most benefit. This also makes sowing much easier as the faster seedings will overcome the slower seedlings. 

It is best to leave flowers on the plant until the blooms are spent. The plants in this collection, if allowed to go to seed in the fall, will overwinter or reseed themselves. So don't be too tidy cleaning up.

The selected flowers have varied bloom times which provide an extended period of forage for the bees. Replant short season annuals for extended foraging. 

Bees need water: Be sure to provide a reliable water source for your bees.  One option is a bird bath as they will line up around the water's edge and provide you with endless amusement. A fountain or pond is also great, as long as there are rocks as they will need a place to land and slip from. Honey bees will definitely try to drink from a source without a landing and will drown. Adding twigs in a puddle helps with this.

Leave natural areas of your yard: Rather than landscaping every part of your yard, you can help bees by leaving a bit of wild space. Bumble bees live in forest duff and other neglected areas, mason bees need mud for their nests; other ground dwelling bees make their nests in sandy soil. When an unnatural mulch covers the ground, or it has been raked and blown excessively, there will be fewer pollinators in your area. Allow native weeds to grow a bit. Indulge your local insects and you will see more birds and butterflies in your yard. 


Homemade Seed Balls

You may have heard of seed bombs, for guerilla gardening, where the purpose is to plant flowers or native plants in abandoned lots and road sides. It turns out that the method of surrounding seeds in a ball of clay, and a little compost and sand, is an ancient method of sowing seeds, first recorded in China many, many years ago.

The benefit of a seed vall, for our purposes in a pollinator garden, is that this technique is perfect for sowing many seeds at a time, with a good success rate. In a penny size ball, the seed is protected from birds, being blown away, being caught in a rivulet of water and washing away, or being fooled by a day of rain, where it sprouts and then dies from dry conditions and hot sun.

The seed gets a chance to germinate and establish itself without interference, and you save yourself a lot of work. By being able to scatter these not just in your garden are easily, but also in any other promising places such as roadside ditches and the like, you can significantly help your pollinator population. 

There are many techniques to make a seed ball. Basically you want plenty of seed, dry terra cotta clay and dry compost. The basic method is using 5 parts clay, 3 parts compost, and 1 part seed. Mix the dry ingredients, then add about 1 part water, possibly more, until you can form little seed balls. Let them dry naturally. 

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