Friday, March 9, 2012

Thinking of Spring 1: Plan for Pollinators, Especially Bees!

Native bee, Agapostemon sp.,  on Cosmos
Springtime in Maine has nothing to do with the calendar.  On March 21 or 22, we are more likely to have drifting snow than drifts of daffodils. Despite yesterday's 60 degrees and incredible honey bee flights far from the hive - activity more like summer in front of the hive with a hundred or more bees at a time hovering waiting their turn to reenter the hive - we are still a long time away from blooming flowers.  Well, with the exception of spring-flowering witch hazel, blooming now, and snowdrops,  demurely huddling close to the ground with their white hoods on.

What is a gardener-beekeeper to do?  Plan, that is what!  And luckily seed and plant catalogues are happy to aid and abet the activity.

As a beekeeper and advocate for native bees, I am always trying to add to the collection of bee-friendly flowers in my yard.  And get rid of lawn.  Because of my very strict requirements for cultivation, I admit that I am reluctant to buy plants off anyone's shelf for fear of pesticides lurking unknown in the potting soil and in the plant.  Some of the more prevalent insecticides are systemic - that is they go throughout the plant and can be found in leaf, stem, nectar and pollen.  If you fancy your back yard as a pollinator paradise, these pesticides are to be avoided, and, because you can't find out much about where plants or how plants are grown these days, in most cases, one of the easiest if not only options is to grow the plants yourself.

Enter seed catalogues.  Oh, to dream of seeds, glorious seeds.  And I have many more wants than time or space, as usual.  But, how to chose the best ones?  There are lots of catalogues whose descriptions of flowers include such intriguing phraseology as " attracts butterflies"  or " hummingbird magnet." But what about the bees?

Here is my take:  Plants people are afraid.  They are afraid that if they advertise plants or flowers as attracting bees, people will shy away, fearful of attracting swarms of stinging insects.  So the safe road to mentioning plants that are good for pollinators is to forget about bees, definitely the most important of all pollinators, and to hype a plant as good for butterflies and hummingbirds.  In Maine, remember, there is only one species of  hummingbird, the ruby throated hummingbird.  It is a beautiful, charismatic bird, and I don't want to take anything away from it.  Butterflies?  One has to appreciate that  butterflies for the most part are not strong fliers.  In order to have butterflies on one's property, the best thing to do is to plant plants that are for the larvae, the caterpillars, and hope that a passing fancy  - painted lady, great spangled fritillary, or other spectacular winged beauty - will lay some eggs.  Then, and as a gardener, you need to be very much on a higher plane to do this, you need to tolerate the caterpillars eating your plants. No bug spray.  That means maybe you need to learn to recognize the larval forms of the butterflies.  And then, if all things go well, maybe you will enjoy the adult butterflies, the true objects of your affection.

Attracting pollinators such as butterflies and hummingbirds is all fine and good but what about the bees?  We need seed and plant catalogues to get more gutsy and put forward flowers and plants for bees.  Bees are not getting the respect or the acknowledgement they deserve.  For gardeners, it's time to take a stand for bees.  And I would like to highlight one catalogue that is trying to help - Select Seeds of Union, CT   The printed catalogue of mostly flower seeds but also some plants and vegetable seeds, features ten symbols that are attributes for each of their offerings. These icons point out cultivation hints such as sun or shade requirements, but also other characteristics such as fragrance or cut-flower appeal.  Best of all, they highlight flowers that are favorites of honey bees with a little bee icon that is separate from the butterfly icon for plants that are for those flower foragers.  Yay!  On line, it is very easy to find good choices for bees by clicking on the bee icon on the home page where there is yet another option for selections - native plants.  Often, native plants are excellent for pollinators of all types.  My gardening cap is off to the people of Select Seeds for taking this step for our very important bee pollinators!  What is good for honey bees is likely to be good for other bees - our native bees - as well.  

Honey bee about to land on annual poppy, 'Lauren's Grape'

The next posts I will devote to highlighting some of the plants in my garden or yard last year that were attractive to bees - native and honey bees.  And there will be photos as proof!

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