Bees. Just try to say it without smiling. Pollinators, too. It’s in the long e and the long a – you just can’t help it. If you’re all practicing your poker face right now as you mouth these words, it might turn into a frown if you couldn’t buy avocados or blueberries, tomatoes or zucchini.
Which leads me to gardening. Because what are pollinators without something to pollinate? And where would the vast majority of fruits and vegetables be without pollinators?
Gardeners know the delight and hope that comes with pouring over a seed catalog, preferably while snuggled under a fleece throw with a cup of tea in the dead of winter. I turn down pages of my catalog, flowers and vegetables alike, and consider all the gardener’s aids offered – hoses that look like old fashioned phone cords on steroids, mini greenhouses, covers to protect my young blueberry bushes from the birds. Oh, and a new pair of pruning shears would be nice.
Photographs of glorious flowers send my imagination to my gardens in their summer prime, lush marigolds and bachelor buttons, marjoram and basil soaking up the sun. Maybe I’ll try amaranth this year, over by the butterfly weed. And Echinacea are drought tolerant; maybe I can finally get something to grow out by the den window. And the vegetable photos – oh, the vegetable photos! Zucchini, muskmelons, and all shapes and sizes of tomatoes. Perfection on the page. My eye wanders to the heirloom varieties of tomatoes, awakening that nostalgic thread in me that connects past to present, with names like Amish Paste, Arkansas Traveler, and Cherokee Purple. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a piece of Americana, equivalent to an old Model T, sitting in my garden.
Heirloom or modern-day, there’s a difference between planting for looks and planting for pollinators.
We love daffodils, lilies and tulips, the big showy flowers, their stamens bowing heavy in the center. But looks aren’t everything and if you’re a pollinator, these won’t do. The nectar and pollen from these modified blooms are generally less accessible to pollinators than the plants they’ve evolved with. Bumblebees and honeybees are specialized – their ability to collect nectar from certain flowers is dependent on their physiology and how it is matched to flower type. Honey bees have short tongues and generally stay at the surface of flowers. They prefer bee balm, sedum, and cosmos, among others. Watching them work my garlic chives is a treat. Bumblebees, on the other hand, are long-tongued and collect nectar and pollen on plants like peppers and tomatoes in a unique way. In 1985, a Belgian veterinarian named Dr. Roland DeJonghe found that placing bumblebee nests in a glasshouse (the very proper English term for our American greenhouse) increased tomato pollination remarkably. Fruits like tomatoes and peppers require buzz pollination, the rapid vibration of the flower, to release pollen onto the stamen. This is something that insects with ever-so-rapidly beating wings do well. Bumblebees are the Goldilocks of pollinators when it comes to tomatoes; everything – their size, their wingbeat frequency, the length of the hairs on their legs – is just right.
There are many, many other pollinators out there, from wasps to butterflies to sweat flies, and in the end, they mostly share, as far as their physiology will let them. My milkweed patch in bloom is an international convention of species. On sunny days it’s as busy as an airport on a holiday weekend.
There’s another question looming, however. What’s all this about non-native plants? Kept in check, they’re not really all that bad (this is an entire post on its own). Bees and other pollinators are adapting to the melting pot of immigrants in their landscape. They love purple loosestrife and Japanese knotweed as much as they love dandelions and clover, buttonbush, goldenrod and jewelweed. On one hand, if it nourishes them, I’m happy. On the other, I also understand the dangers of non-natives turning invasive and crowding out native species. A monoculture of anything can’t be good. If it goes belly up, the pollinators are sunk. Of course, that’s the worst case scenario and unlikely to happen. But a proliferation of non-natives may outcompete the native species that have been around since before the first Europeans even stepped foot on North American shores.
Want to keep smiling when you say bees? Want to enjoy an abundance of fruits and vegetables?
• Plant flowers that pollinators can get to.
• Keep in mind variety. Though pollinators tend to be loyal to a particular flower type as it is blooming, they need variety so they can forage all the season on flowers with different bloom times. The Xerces Society, https://xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/plant-lists/ has comprehensive lists for different regions and climates.
• Advocate for open spaces where herbaceous plants and trees alike can grow over huge swaths of land. One of the first sources of nectar for honey bees in the spring is the red maple.
• Encourage dandelions, chickweed and clover in your lawn instead of perfection in the form of bluegrass or fescue. It keeps things interesting, nourished and healthy. And it’s all green anyway.
Honey bees visit 2 million flowers to make a pound of honey, and one busy bee only collects just 1/12 of a teaspoon in its short lifetime. That’s a lot of flowers for a little honey. You may think your little garden patch isn’t much but think of it as a contribution to the Butterfly Effect . . . or the Pollinator Effect.
Oh, and one more thing. The title of this blog is Why Do Bees, right? As in why do bees do what they do? Or as in why do we keep bees? Either way, I love questions and thrive on assignments. Ask away. I’ll be happy to feature your question in a post along the way.