There is only one answer to this question.
Recently and unfortunately, the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee has become the first bee in the continental US to be listed as an endangered species. This unfortunate event has spurred me to write this blog post since my day to day experience as a landscape consultant can frequently involve decisions that can either be a detriment or benefit to our local bee population. I hear regular requests for plants and landscapes that avoid overly attracting bees because they are thought of as a nuisance. Often times these “nuisance” insects are wasps or hornets that disrupt our picnics and make nests in the eaves of our homes. While it won’t be discussed here, these insects do actually provide beneficial services to us and our home gardens. They do this with pest control and some pollination but their biggest offense is to make us fear all flying insects that resemble them, such as relatively harmless honey bees and other bees like the rusty patched bumble bee. These bees, and flies that look like bees, are absolutely critical to the survival of our ecosystem and subsequently our survival. Their pollinating activity is the lynch pin to the continued growth of a substantial portion of our food crops and favorite landscape plants. Unfortunately recent news and studies show a continued decline speculatively from certain pesticide uses and lack of diversity in their environment and diet. As humans will continue to change an influence the ecosystems we are members of, we must consider how our actions (or lack of) affect the species critical to our own survival.
The majority of our homes, whether urban, suburban, or rural, involve some type of “landscape”. We use this landscape to make our home and property more attractive and a as a place to recreate. Whether you extensively garden or take a minimalist approach, there are things we can all do to help support the local pollinators and ultimately benefit the ecological web we are all members of. These benefits can be accomplished through an aesthetic approach with plants or through some changes to our maintenance practices. As humans we primarily approach the landscape from an aesthetic perspective, the following sections will identify some key plants for each season that could fit a range of landscapes to support bees. Finally a brief discussion on some changes to our maintenance practices will identify some methods to reduce our impact on bee populations.
Late Winter/Spring: As we awake from a cold dark slumber, desperate to escape our homes and once again enjoy the warm sunshine and the first emergence of spring foliage, bees are also desperate to begin recovering from winter. Honeybees have spent the winter consuming stores of honey to use for energy and keep their hives warm to prevent them from freezing. As warm spring and late winter days present themselves they are desperate to forage for any nectar and pollen sources they can find to help bolster and replenish their stores. Other bees have it much harder as they live solitary lives over winter and must begin their food searches immediately as the weather breaks to ensure their survival. This is a critical time of year to provide nectar and pollen sources for bees.
- Maple Trees-
- Hazels (corylus)
- Asian Witch Hazels-
- False Indigo
- Perennial Geraniums
- Crocus (bulb)
- Grape hyacinth (bulb)
Late Spring/ Summer: Bees and other pollinators are flying high in summer. This is the peak of the nectar flow from trees, shrubs, and flowers. As we get closer to the hot doldrums of late summer the nectar flow from plants begins to shut down. It is critical for bees to build their stores and produce future generations to continue their life-cycles. As late summer moves in, the hot doldrums coincide with a shutting down of nectar sources until fall. Not only is this the boom time for bees but also the season with a lot of aesthetic potential for our gardens.
- Fruit Trees (cherry, apple, pear, etc.)
- Horse chestnut
- New Jersey Tea
- Rugosa Roses (other roses)
- Button bush
Perennials could be an exhausting list but the following are commonly found growing in our area. Keep in mind some will overlap with late summer and fall as well due to prolonged bloom times.
- Tickseed (coreopsis)
- Mountain mint
- Sages (pervoskia or salvia)
- Blazing star
- Culver’s root
- Allium (onions)
- Crocosmia- while the long flowers are not conducive to bees they attract butterflies and hummingbirds
Annuals– A lot of landscapes lack diversity when it comes to perennials. There is only so much space in most yards and not everyone is willing to invest in substantial amounts of plant bed space. From a style perspective, not all landscapes visually work with an eclectic mix of perennials either and require a more simplified plant or color palate. This is where annuals really shine providing large masses of summer color and interest. They also tend to bloom for a longer period of time where perennials require layering to get continued color. The right selections here can also be pollinator magnets. The only downside is they have to be replanted every year and some will require more watering and maintenance compared to established perennials. (p.s. we can plant and maintain annual beds for you *wink *wink).
- Annual salvias
- Sweet alyssum
Late Summer/Fall: As the seasons wind down bees and pollinators like many other animals and insects are making a last push to build stores or are preparing themselves/future generations for winter. This is the time, after the slow nectar period in late summer, to help bolster the seasons harvest with late season nectar sources. Flowers during this season also help you prepare for winter by stretching every bit of enjoyment and color we can get from our landscapes.
- Panicle Hydrangea
- American Witch Hazel
- Joe pye weed
Finally a word on best practices that we can implement to help provide a friendlier environment for pollinators in regard to maintenance. If I had to choose one thing it would be to reduce the use of certain pesticides for controlling insects. Easy, right? In my opinion, this is actually one of the harder things to accomplish in a home landscape and still have it meet our expectations. The key is to make proper plant selections for our climate and specific site conditions. Proper plant in the proper location should result in a healthier and stronger plant. These plants, for the most part, have evolved alongside insects and are adapt at surviving minimal infestations. That certainly doesn’t mean plants can’t be overtaken during particularly difficult seasons of drought or years that are more conducive to the rapid expanse of a particular problem. In these situations it is important that you or your reliable maintenance provider are monitoring your landscape for changes and making adjustments to treat or prevent severe problems for gaining a foothold. This can be done with preventative dormant oil sprays in spring for certain plants and pathogens, minimally treating spot infestations throughout the season, proper fertilization and watering supplementation to help plants grow through infestations, and proper disposal of landscape debris in the fall to reduce overwintering potential of a disease.
If you are designing a new landscape or want to bolster your existing landscape, with a few well planned additions you can go from a pollinator desert to a pollinator destination. Not sure where to begin with your design or new maintenance program? Eichenlaub has the experts to help.
Contact me at: (412) 767-4769 or
Ben Simpson is a landscape consultant at Eichenlaub.