Did you know the phrase “the bee’s knees” originally described something tiny and insignificant? Since then it has evolved to mean something outstanding. And in August, I find nothing more outstanding than the sight of native pollinators in the landscape.
One of the basics of plant life is pollination, meaning pollen is transferred from one plant to another. This process is especially important for food production. Without pollination, you don’t get ripe summer cherries, blueberries, or peaches. The majority of plants are pollinated by wind and animals. Animal and native pollinators could be anything from birds and bats, to insects like flies, butterflies, and bees. See? There’s a reason it’s called “the birds and the bees”!
There are about 500 species of bees native to Wisconsin. Cranberry production in Wisconsin is reliant entirely upon bees in order to produce fruits for our jellies, relishes, and juices. Surprisingly, the honey bee is not native to Wisconsin. They were brought to North America by European colonists, not for their honey by-product, but for making beeswax candles. Sadly, you may have heard that honey bee populations are in severe decline. Native pollinators, like bees are our best insurance policy to ensure continued fruit and vegetable production.
Okay, I’m going to stop for a second. You might be thinking, “Hey, Carrie, bees are great and all, but I don’t want them in my yard. I have kids and I don’t want them to get stung”. The buzzing insects that build nests in your eaves and hover around your soda cans are not bees, but kinds of hornets, yellow jackets, and wasps. And there are some key differences between bees and wasps.
Difference #1: Bees have hair. If you look closely at a bumble bee you will see tiny hairs covering its body. All native bees have this. Wasps are bald.
Difference #2: Wasps are carnivores. Bees are vegetarians.
Difference #3: Wasps are aggressive. Bees will ignore you unless you get up in their business.
Most native bee species are ground nesters and will search for bare patches of dirt to create their underground tunnels. Bumblebees tend to build nests in thick grass. 30% of bees are cavity nesters and will lay their eggs in the soft pith of twigs or burrow into dead trees and stumps. You can lure native pollinators, like beneficial mason bees to your yard by installing a bee house. A bee house could be as simple as drilling holes into a piece of untreated wood, or you can buy pre-made houses. Hanging bee houses around your yard is a good alternative to leaving piles of brush.
Of course, the best, and prettiest, way to bring native pollinators to your yard is with plants to provide nectar and pollen sources. Our employee vegetable garden at Johnson’s Nursery is perfectly situated, being surrounded by fields of clover. The more flowering plants you have around your orchard and garden, the more fruits and vegetables will be produced. Bees are most attracted to shades of blue, purple, yellow, and white. In fact, they don’t see the color red, another good way to remember that native bees are not aggressive.
Native bees will start collecting pollen in early spring, when the crabapples and redbuds are in bloom. Late spring and summer plants like Salvia, Blazing Star, Wild Bergamot, Allium, Catmint, Sunflowers, Russian Sage, and Coreopsis will have continuous activity. Be sure to include fall-blooming plants like asters, goldenrod, and mums in your yard, too.
My favorite plant to bring bees to the yard is Calamint. Johnson’s Nursery carries the variety Montrose White because it doesn’t reseed everywhere and has extremely long bloom time. Give it a sunny, dry location and you will enjoy flowers from June until frost. Rabbits and deer don’t eat it and it attracts a wide variety of native pollinators. I keep Montrose White Calamint around my vegetable garden to increase the yield of peppers and tomatoes, which specifically need bees for pollination, and to help deter rabbits.
When I get stressed and need a moment of Zen at the nursery, I come out to this patch of Montrose White and enjoy the humming of native pollinators busy at work. They couldn’t care less that I’ve come for a visit, so focused are they on collecting every bit of nectar and pollen.
Insecticides are one of the biggest obstacles for native bee and honey bee populations. If you have to use a pesticide, always read the labels carefully. Many products will specifically tell you not to spray your plants while in bloom to prevent killing native pollinators like bees and butterflies. For this reason, try to use insecticides only as a last resort.
Is there anything better than fresh blueberries? If you want to grow these at home, you’ll need acidic soil and plenty of flowers that bloom from early spring until October to keep the bees around. The same plants will also attract butterflies and birds. Studies have shown that if 25% of a landscape is left or converted to natural habitat, 100% of the pollination needs can be met on certain crops. Imagine if we all devoted a corner of the yard to native pollinators…wouldn’t that be the bee’s knees?