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Invite Native Bees to Your Garden

by Carolee James

It is becoming quite common these days to find articles in the newspaper, in garden magazines, and in agricultural and scientific publications regarding the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) affecting hives of honey bees. This mysterious ailment has been destroying bee colonies at an alarming rate and the cause is still unknown. To date, bees in more than 22 states have been affected.

The honey bee, (Apis mellifera) is a “domesticated” European honey bee, and is our nation´s Number One pollinator. In past years, as far back as 1868 and as recently as 2003, bee colonies have had problems and widespread colonies were lost. In most cases causes were discovered and the bees recovered.

However, CCD is worse than any previous problem. Bee keepers open their hives to find that perhaps only the queen and a few young bees are left in the colony. Several thousand worker bees have just left and no one knows where they went or worse, why. They just disappear! Since affected hives are often stocked with food, and no parasites or known diseases found, bee scientists across the country are looking elsewhere for the cause. Mites, insecticides, a pathogenic microbe, poor nutrition, polluted water, and even global warning have all been considered, but unfortunately none have proven to be the origin of CCD. One UC Berkeley biologist believes that trucking the hives all over the country produces stress and might spread disease. One state where CCD has not yet appeared is Connecticut. And the reason could be is that the state´s bee keepers do not take them out of state.

So what does CCD mean to you and me? Well, when you consider honey bees pollinate over 90 important farm crops… If there is no pollination, then there will be fewer crops to harvest. Fewer crops will cause higher prices at the grocery store. And repeated crop failures will result in farmers going out of business. In California, almond orchards need 1.3 million colonies of bees to pollinate their trees. Honey bees provide 90% of the pollination needed for apples. Peaches, soybeans, pears, pumpkins, cucumbers, cherries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries rely, at least in part, on honey bees. And the general environmental effect on other plants, such as wild and cultivated flowers, hasn´t even been determined.

Adding insult to injury, bee keepers are having their hives stolen from orchards. Already suffering losses to CCD, now they are losing their hives to thieves. This in turn reduces pollination in the farmer´s orchard, resulting in fewer crops to harvest and higher prices at the store for us. Not a pretty picture!

As gardeners, there is not much we can do about CCD, but there is something we can do to help protect our native flora and some of our home grown fruits and vegetables. We can plant to entice native bees to come into our yards and surrounding neighborhoods. While our native bees are not honey bees and don´t live in hives, they nevertheless pollinate flowers and some crops. UC biologist Gordon Frankie, along with his students, planted a small garden of bee- attracting flowers. They have attracted 40 different species of native bees and identified another 40 species within the Berkeley campus area.

Their website: http://nature.berkeley.edu/urbanbeegardens/ has a great list of spring and summer plants- both native and non-native- that you can find at your local nursey to plant in your garden. The website also contains pertinent information on native bees from housing to stinging and more in-between. Do take a look at it if you want to attract these flying ´buzzers´ and also learn to become a bee watcher!

When planning a bee friendly garden keep in mind that a large cluster (at least three feet square) of one type of flower will be more easily seen by the bees. Try to plant a steady succession of flowers, so that the bees always have something to come to, from spring through summer. You will find some species of bees appearing only in spring and others only in summer, while some will stay for both seasons. The greater the diversity of your plants, the more species of bees you will attract. The Frankie website printable plant list also contains the species of bees that will visit each plant variety as well as additional notes for many of the plants.

Here are a few plants listed on the website to consider for spring: manzanita, yarrow, borage, ceanothus, seaside daisy, lavender, penstemon, germander, and autumn sage. Wildflowers include: California poppy, globe gilia, elegant Clarkia, Chinese houses, tidytips.

Plants for summer are: Agastache, Dusty Miller, Coreopsis, Pumpkin, Squash, Zucchini, California buckwheat, sea holly, oregano, pincushion flower, thyme, verbena, and goldenrod.

A few other tips for having a bee friendly garden:

1. Avoid the use of insecticides… if absolutely necessary to use pesticides, apply at night and to plants not in flower.

2. Leave areas of soil mulch-free as habitat for ground-nesting bees.

3. Install bee nesting blocks.

Information for this article was derived from House and Garden Magazine, Agricultural Research Publication and several newspaper articles.

Carolee James has become a ´bee watcher´ after learning how easy it is on the Frankie website.