Thursday, February 21, 2019

Say yes to bees in your backyard -- Feb. 21, 2019 column


If you’re gloomy about the way the country’s headed, there is something you can do to make things better.

And it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat, Republican or independent.

It’s not voting or running for office – though the first is necessary and the second admirable. Nor do you need to contribute to a candidate, make calls, collect signatures or march in the street. 

This transformative act is simple, close to home and far more effective than fulminating on Twitter: Choose to have a garden and plant native plants.

Tending a garden won’t solve the political mess, of course, but it will get you outside, and, more importantly, it will help bees.

You might not think a backyard garden would amount to more than, well, a hill of beans in our helter-skelter world of stressed bees, declining insects and changing climate, but biologists say what you do on your patch of the planet matters.  

“Bees need just a little space,” says Sam Droege, wildlife biologist at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, part of the U.S. Geological Survey, and one of the nation’s top experts on bees.
“Bees are tiny; one bush or one clump of perennials is often all it takes to foster native bees in your yard,” he writes in his article “Quick Background on the Mid-Atlantic Region’s NativeBees.”
“Within a mile of your yard (urban or rural) there are at least over 100 species of bees looking for the right plants,” he writes.   
When Droege, an evangelist for bees, and naturalist Alonso Abugattas spoke in Arlington the other night on bee-friendly gardening, the meeting room was packed.
The basic buzz: Plant the right flowers and flowering bushes, and native bees will come.
This might be a good time to mention that most native bees don’t sting.

They aren’t aggressive and would rather fly away than attack. Most nest in the ground, so you likely have stepped on thousands upon thousands of nesting bees over time, without knowing it, Droege said.

The plight of the honey bee worldwide is well known. Colony collapse disorder made news in 2006, alarming scientists, the government and the public. Honey bees are farmed in hives, are important pollinators in agriculture and provide honey.

Of the more than 4,000 species of wild, native bees in the United States, about 450 species have been identified in Virginia. Native bees were here long before the European honey bee was brought to Jamestown in the 1600s.

Unlike European honey bees, native bees are solitary and don’t live in a hive with a queen. Native bees are more interested in pollen than honey bees who really go for nectar.

Native bees actually are better pollinators than honey bees and are important for fruits and vegetables.   

The orchard mason bee is a super pollinator. One of these native bees can visit up to 60,000 flowers in its lifetime, Eric Day, entomologist at Virginia Tech, writes in his article “Native and Solitary Bees in Virginia,” adding that this bee is very docile and suitable for urban settings.

Some native bees can become a nuisance, however. Leafcutter bees like to build their nests in door or window frames, and beneficial bumble bees sometimes nest near and get in houses. Day writes.

Native bees prefer native plants – asters, coneflower, goldenrod and a host of others. 

About 35 percent of native bees are specialists, meaning they will feed only certain pollen to their young.

For a bee-friendly garden, choose your sunniest spot and plan your garden so 
something is always flowering. A rule of thumb is it takes five flowers to support one baby bee.

If you can part with some of your lawn, so much the better. You can even leave a patch of bare dirt for the bees. Avoid insecticides and pesticides.

Consult your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office, public gardens, Master Gardeners, Master Naturalists and their reliable websites for advice, lists of bee-friendly plants and how-tos on building nest structures for the 30 percent of bees that do nest above ground.  

Everybody wins when we make our backyards better for bees.  

©Marsha Mercer 2019. All rights reserved.

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