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The Benefits of Bees

By Julie Segerstrom Master Gardener

Mention bees in a conversation and you´re likely to hear horror stories of painful bee stings and life threatening bee allergies. Bees aren´t a popular or friendly topic, it seems. But mention bees in a roomful of gardeners and you´ll get all sorts of admiration for the species.

After all, bee pollination accounts for a third of all food production. Most of us have seen hives used by commercial orchard growers. They know bees will increase the crop they grow and sell for profit. Likewise home gardeners find increased benefits (more flowers, fruit and vegetables!) from having bees visit their gardens.

Bees face environmental threats that are causing their populations to dwindle. Some plants can only be pollinated by one species of bees so it follows that if that pollinator is eliminated, that plant becomes endangered. By planning a garden with thought to attracting natural pollinators, you´ll create the habitat necessary for these important and necessary insects.

A bee does not have an easy life. Even visiting flowers is a dangerous occupation. Assassin bugs, crab spiders, dragonflies and birds lay waiting to attack. To make matters worse, many bees will die from spray treatments aimed at eliminating mosquitoes, gypsy moths and other insect pests.

To attract bees to your garden, you have to provide what they need—lots of food, in the form of nectar and pollen producing flowers. Nectar is the bee´s energy source while pollen provides protein and nutrients, mainly for feeding the brood. Bees focus on gathering nectar or pollen depending on the need at the time. Interestingly, they periodically stop to groom themselves, packing pollen into specialized baskets on the legs of honeybees or the abdomens of other bees.

Planting the flowers bees like will keep them fed and busy in your midst. Bees like open blossoms without extra petals. Double blossom flowers have fewer anthers where the pollen is found so single petal varieties are preferred. Examples of single open flowers are strawberries, crabapple and single petal roses, daisies and sunflowers. Bees like blue flowers such as ageratum, chaste tree and ajuga. Purple is another color that attracts bees. Purple flowers include lavender, speedwell and asters. Yellow is another color attractor for bees, as in sunflowers and daisies. Many herbs attract bees; examples for a bee garden would be oregano, borage, chives, hyssop and thyme. Old heirloom varieties such as cosmos, black eyed Susan, lupines and mints provide bountiful flowers and plenty of places to hide from predators. As a bonus, these multiple blooms offer privacy to locate and court a mate. To view examples of bee gardens try the Ohio State Beekeepers Association website at www.beelab.osu.edu/garden

Bees also need some source of water to construct their nests. A dripping faucet, birdbath or pond can help. They also need a place to build. While we tend to prepare or cover open ground in a landscape, a bare spot (if you can tolerate it) will help to provide for bees. Bees need the mud to build their nests. Even dead branches and twigs that may seem unsightly can provide habitat for bee nesting. If you would like to provide more nesting spots in branches, you can make an arrangement of twig cuttings and tie it up decoratively on your garden shed or deck.

Native plants attract bees. Natives use less water, pesticides and fertilizers so are naturally good for your garden landscape, besides being beautiful, interesting and unique. They have adapted to our climate and soils and once established, are much less work to maintain. As a bonus, natives have more nutritious pollen.

Most gardeners naturally have several of these things going on in their gardens, but even if you don´t and would like to try adding one or two bee essentials, you´ll be making a difference. You may wonder if what you do in your one small spot in nature can possibly have an impact. But if several like minded gardeners are all doing their bit to help, joined together these gardens and landscapes will create a patchwork of floral islands to sustain and nurture native bees. These oasis gardens will also help other migratory pollinators such as monarch butterflies and nectar feeding bats.

Bees perform a vital function in keeping mankind alive by providing food in good supply. Bees are worth caring about as we do not fully understand their value in the field of scientific research. Bee stings are being studied for their ability to reduce symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis, arthritis and autoimmune diseases.

Give bees a chance. See you in the garden.

Julie Segerstrom is a Master Gardener who enjoys attracting birds and beneficial insects to her garden by planting flowers alongside her vegetables and shrubs to provide food and cover.