Master Gardener Nancy Crowe recommends ways to live with our buzzing pollinators.
My Australian shepherd mix, Ellie, always wanted to help in the garden, or at least supervise to make sure any digging was done according to code. After two bee stings — both of which required emergency vet trips — I told her, “No bees!” every time we went out to the garden. She would respond to this directive with an innocent look that never quite convinced.
I didn’t want to tangle with any bees, either. My father was allergic to them and kept an EpiPen handy. One of the guys who installed the fence accidentally disturbed a nest of bees and ended up with multiple stings that required urgent care. Bee stings can injure and, in some cases, kill.
Over time, I discovered that caring for the earth — through gardening or any other means — doesn’t allow the fear of bees. Respect, yes. As bees gather pollen and nectar to feed themselves and their young, they carry pollen from flower to flower. Without pollinators such as bees and butterflies, the circle of plant life comes to a screeching halt. No pollination, no produce. So letting the bees be seems like a good idea to me.
“Anything that’s not a self-pollinating flower needs a pollinator,” said Holly Chaille, whose website Bees and Carrots (www.beesandcarrots.com) serves as an information and networking hub for Northeast Indiana food growers. She launched Fort Wayne’s first multicultural urban farming project, the Fresh Food Initiative. “Bees are built to carry pollen. If we lose bees, we’re going to lose a whole ton of food crops.”
Bee populations have been in decline worldwide due to colony collapse disorder, which means bees vanish or die for reasons that aren’t fully understood. Pesticides, viruses, mites, genetically modified crops and even electromagnetic radiation have been suggested as causes. It’s a bigger issue than I can address here, but few problems are so big that they cannot be addressed in our backyards. This problem literally can be.
“I think it’s really important to make a pollinator garden, at least a small pocket garden,” she said. Plants that attract bees include mint, lavender, borage, bee balm, fruit trees and anything in the daisy family. Asters, which are perennials, are a good choice if you don’t want to start it all over again each season. Chaille’s favorite is Tithonia, also called Mexican sunflower, which bees especially love.
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources publication, “Gardening for Honey Bees,” suggests clumping plants together so that bees can find and visit many flowers in one location. It’s also helpful to have a succession of plants in bloom from spring to fall, hopefully with some overlap. Bees appreciate convenience and selection as much as the rest of us do.
Another important ingredient of a bee-friendly garden is the absence of pesticides or herbicides. Products intended to kill other insects can kill bees. Herbicides can kill plants from which bees get pollen and nectar. Read labels.
“Go with a chemical-free garden if you can,” Chaille urges.
As for the risk bees pose to people and pets, keep in mind that bees mostly sting if they perceive said people or pets pose a threat. They’re really just as happy to let you go about your business while they go about theirs.
Wearing white or light-colored clothing makes it more likely the bees will pass you by; bright colors can make you look like a flower even if no other being on earth would mistake you for one. Bees are attracted by fragrance, too, so avoiding perfume is a good idea. If you have a beverage by your side while working in the garden, make sure it’s covered and/or visible. An open soda can is a poor choice because not only can a bee get inside, you’re not likely to see it. Water is better anyway.
“The big thing is, you don’t want to be an alarmist in the garden,” Chaille said. Don’t swat, run or scream. “And — I learned this the hard way — don’t garden barefoot.”
Keep calm and carry on, and let the bees do the same.