08 March 2008

Pollinating our future, part 1

Every single day, I learn something new about gardening, about plants and birds and other myriad creatures, by reading through the scores of blogs that are among my favourites. One of the people I hold in highest esteem in the garden-blogging world is Wild Flora, of Wild Gardening. Flora is a passionate promoter of wildlife-friendly gardens and native plants. She is gently passionate, getting her message across about these things without being strident or didactic. We talk regularly and I read and reread her blog postings faithfully, and we even met, last spring (she also lives in Nova Scotia) and traded native plants. I brought her red trillium (Trillium erectum) and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum communtatum) from our garden, and she brought me wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) which is a true bee and hummingbird magnet.

Over the past few months, we’ve talked back and forth about a variety of subjects, including pollinators, particularly bees. Even before the fuss began last year about Colony Collapse Disorder, we were both thinking a lot about native bees. Honeybees are not native to North America, and while they’re incredibly important for pollinating a huge number of food crops (and other plants), native bees and other pollinators also perform these important tasks.

Wild Flora put me on to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, where I happily began learning more—but also learning things that alarmed me, about the decline in native pollinators from a host of reasons. Habitat destruction, excessive use of pesticides, possible disease from introduced bumble bee species…while some research has been done, there’s lots more to learn.

Ours is a very bee-friendly property. I’ve always gleefully welcomed the sight of honeybees from a local beekeeper’s boxes, bouncing from flower to flower, but what I love best are the fat, fuzzy, happy-sounding bumble bees. I’ve been stung exactly once in nine years here, and that’s because I walked on one in the clover—and felt very sad for it. Not being allergic to bees or other hymenopterans (order Hymenoptera includes bees, wasps, sawflies and ants), I don’t work in fear in the garden, and I’m quite inclined to follow bees around with my camera, trying to get good photos of them as they go about their business.

By accident last summer, I took several photos of one of the bees that is in decline—the yellow-banded bumble bee, Bombus terricola. I didn’t know what species it was at the time, I just like bees. Earlier this winter Sarina of Xerces confirmed the identification after Flora and I puzzled over it. I was delighted, but also became more determined to do what I can to promote awareness of the plight of native bees, and do what I can to help them.

I’m not an absolutist in most things. I’m a mostly organic gardener (about 99 44/100 %) and use a mixture of native and hybrid plants. Our property is a Monarch Waystation, we feed the birds, don’t spray chemicals (even organic ones), and I encourage plants that are good for all kinds of pollinators. Like nettles, and goldenrod, thistles and even dandelions. Our ‘lawn’ is full of clover and dandelions, and every time I watch a pollen-laden bee rise from a clover blossom or a dandelion flower, I smile.

So while you’ll see a host of cool hybrids here at Sunflower Hill, you’ll also see other plants that won’t grace the front cover of too many glossy gardening magazines. But that’s okay. I hear our happy bees, and like Yeats in his bee-loud glade, I find peace, ‘dropping slow’ on me with a sound of hope. This is just one garden. But there are many who share these concerns, and do what we can to help.


  1. A joy to read! Of all the bees out there I like the bumblebee the best with its' lazy schedule and teddy bear appearance!

  2. Hi Jodi,
    Like you I've been really worried about the bees over the last year or so, and have posted on it several times. At this point, I think using insecticide on any flowering plant becomes irresponsible. Even if you couldn't care less about conserving the bees themselves, without them it could be difficult to conserve the human race. The predictions of the effect on agriculture are horrific.

  3. It is against our city and neighborhood code of covenants to allow weeds like dandelions to grow in the lawn. Isn't that crazy? So, everyone has to poison their lawns to remove weeds. And we wonder what is happening to the bees! I try my best to remove the weeds by hand. My husband does apply the weed and feed mix to the front lawn but I've asked that he not put it in the back. I at least want that area bird and bee friendly, without any chemicals.
    Thanks for this wonderful post! I loved seeing the pictures of the bees.

  4. One of my favourite aspects of my garden is the sound, through summer, of bees. My garden is much, much smaller than yours, but I similarly try to plant bee-and-butterfly friendly plants. One of my pet peeves is folks who speak of being stung or almost stung by bees, but minimal questioning reveals that they're talking about wasps -- such an easy and clear distinction between the two that I can't understand the confusion (or laziness!). We have mason bees around here, not as showy or pleasant-sounding as bumble or honeybees, but apparently very effective pollinators. Never using chemicals in the garden means dragonflies galore alongside bees and butterflies -- and even the wasps have a place (their paper nests are such beautiful marvels, and if you're careful, you can generally avoid getting stung).
    Anyway, thanks for an informative post.

  5. Jodi,

    Me too, girl. I grow a lot of native varieties that have smallish flowers, but the bees love them. I used to be scared of bees, but over time, I've learned that while they're feeding, they want nothing to do with me. I've also learned that these plants often do better than the newest hybrids. However, I'm still off to a local garden center to hear a talk on new varieties.~~Dee

  6. I'm with you, I'm not 100%, but I do garden 99+% organically. I use organic and native plants most of the time. Sometimes hybrids catch my eye, and I have to add them just for their beauty. We feed the birds, grow as many native varieties as we can. We encourage milkweed, clover, thistle, nettles, and goldenrod. I love watching the birds, bees, praying mantis, and other wonderful creatures in my gardens. I just hate what our world is doing to these wonderful creations.

  7. I can't tell you how wonderful it was to visit your blog and see a huge, happy sunflower. We're being hit by yet another snow storm and it feels like spring will never come.

    We, too, have a bee-friendly garden. The bumble bees love my William Baffin roses. The single blooms make it so easy for them to collect pollen. And my bee balm (okay, bergamot) is equally pleasing to both the insect population and my nose.

    Oh, I miss my garden. Thanks for reminding me winter will eventually end.


  8. Hi Jodi,
    Thanks so much for the generous mentions! And as always, for all the good things you do for the critters around us.
    Bee happy,
    Wild F.

  9. jodi, again, blogger is getting me down here. Did you get my long comment about being stung by the bee?


  10. I just wanted to say, I've really enjoyed reading your blog. I'm just sorry I didn't find it in time for the Geography Round-up. I'll be looking forward to your future posts.

  11. Jodi, I'm a bee lover too, last year we had a ground nest in the hole where our sprinkler control is. I left those sprinklers off all summer rather than disturb the nest. Since the nests change places every year I will be able to use the sprinklers again this year.

    My Dad used to show my daughters how they could pet a bee. They'd get all drunk and happy and stud the Liatris stalks all the way around. At that time he'd gently stroke their backs!

  12. I love reading posts like this, as I'm becoming more of a native fascist--and not just perrenials, but shrubs and trees, too. It's a failing in many ways though, too. I just signed up as a monarch waystation--I've got everything they need but a swath of milkweed (sorta the big plant I know), but the milkweeds are on their way!

  13. I love clover. I have some planted in the yard, for me, so I can make daisy chains and lay in it. LIKE A FOOL!

    It snowed. I posted pics. Snowed in Mississippi.

    Fred and I work hard to keep our garden safe for birds, butterflies, moths (which I want to work with one of these days). But it's difficult. For now we live in a subdivision and we have to restrain nature a bit.

    I hardly saw a honeybee last year. It was strange. Plenty of bumblebees, but no honeybees.

  14. We are butterfly and bee friendly in our yard and garden as well. They boys know what catterpillar turns into what butterfly. Happily we have a very active bee population this spring. It hasn't been so over the past two years. Maybe things are looking up.

  15. I agree - don't like chemicals or pesticides. That was a lesson learned early from my organic gardening mama. I love seeing bees all over the garden.

    Yellow jackets, not so much. I like them fine, they just seem to have some sort of grudge against me!

  16. Jodi, I've been reading alot about CCD lately. I'm really concerned about the whole doomsday thing they are pushing. While I hate to hear about the honey bees it does me good to be reminded of the bumble bees, I think they've been almost forgotten. It gives me a litte peace of mind that there are indeed other bees.

  17. Something that has always made me nuts is the fact that so many folks fail to understand the basic ecological premise that a more diverse environment is a more stable one. Our gardens are perfect opportunities to promote diversity - and I often have folks at work who live within their homogenous suburban yards that complain of 'this' pest or 'that' one, and ask what they should do. Almost invariable, I say 'plant more' - plant more plants, plant more different plants - plant plants that naturally grow in your area and promote wildlife. It is so simple really, this fundamental tenant of ecology, and, well, it all just drives me nuts.

    A week or so ago I planted about 10 lbs of red clover in my back garden (around some fruit trees) and it's already up and looking a bit clover-esque. God do bees love the stuff. This year I'll definitely have to pay more attention (and perhaps even keep track of) the bees in my garden.

    Nice post - I'll have to head over to Wild Flora's. Sounds like a place that I would enjoy.

  18. Great post as usual, Jodi. I, too, love to see the bees and try to garden organically to keep them happy and around... their only threat in my garden is the dog, actually! She's inquisitive and will snap at bees if they're buzzing--which has resulted in her looking as if she has a huge goiter on at least two occasions.

    I have been stung 3 times in my gardening lifetime (the last 7 years)... all three were while I was working at a garden center and NOT paying enough attention while deadheading. Like you, I felt badly for the bees.

  19. The blue flowers are the most amazing. As far as trillium go, I saw a few once in a redwood grove. I was with a friend who was a naturalist and she knew they are shy spirits and hide in the shadows of the big trees.

  20. Interesting note about not being stung, jodi. As a 'pesticide free' gardener for over 30 years, I have never been stung by bees (only other nasty buggers). It's almost as though bees sense our heaven is theirs. When near, I honor them and they honor me.

  21. Jodi, here is what I wrote about the bees here, just a synopsis, not nearly as clever as the first comment...We have lots of bees and other flying buzzers around here. But as a warning, NEVER walk around the garden wearing a loose skirt. A couple of years ago I was wearing such a garment and a bumblebee flew up inside, got confused and stung me over and over. I thought honeybees could only sting once, but this was a big fat fuzzy guy and stung me many times. I am not allergic, but it did swell up and felt like fire. We have been chased by hornets into the shed where they threw themselves against the closed door, thunk, thunk, etc. Yellow jackets have attacked us also. But we know their value to the garden and just try and not make any of them angry!

    Frances at Faire Garden

  22. Love this post Jodi as I love to hear the bees and bumbles buzzing around the garden. They are such hard workers.

  23. Layanee, yes, there's something about bumbles that just is smile-inducing--except for those who are allergic, of course.
    Sue, I'm with you...I understand the use of pesticides on food crops (it's not my choice, but anyway) but not on flowers. The predictions ARE scary, so do we want perfect roses or to be able to eat?
    Robin, I feel so sorry for you--that's a ridiculous covenant that is going to have to change in a lot of communities, not just yours of course. What are these people thinking? Have you tried corn gluten meal on the 'weeds' in your lawn? The mayor of Wolfville, a town that bans pesticide use for ornamental purposes, uses it on his grass and swears by it.
    Materfamilias: Yes, the bee-loud garden is a thing of joy. We have lots of dragon/damselflies here too, and I love them.
    Dee, I too mix heirloom and hybrids together in our garden. I figure we have enough room here for some of everything--except bishop's weed, of course. Don't want any of that.
    Linette: I think that gardening consciously with the environment in mind, as we do, is a more effective way of winning over the chemical-set instead of bludgeoning them with preaching don't you? Little steps, little steps. You're doing great things for your wild creatures, and it all helps.
    Charmian, you're right about single-type flowers being best for pollinators, who can get at them easily. and yes, winter will eventually end.
    Wild Flora, you're welcome. You're a continuous source of education for me.
    Frances, Blogger has been being a pain...the story about the bee under your skirt is scary, and a good reminder. I wander around the garden in skirts quite often, but haven't been stung--so far, anyway.
    Patricia, glad you enjoy the blog.
    Melanie, good for you! I've never noticed the bee nests around our yard, but maybe they're down around the pond or in other really wild spots we leave alone.
    Benjamin, I love natives, but not absolutely. They have their drawbacks too--some are weedy, disease prone, not overly attractive, or not suitable to my particular soil. I figure a mixture of beneficial plants, both naturalized and native and hybrids too, will encourage the most diversity in our plantings. You can use any Asclepias for the monarchs, including the common wild milkweed and the more ornamental types--just so long as you have some sort of milkweed for the caterpillars.
    Jane, Sorry about the snow in Mississippi--I see Texas got some too. What a crazy winter. I'm with you on the clover. Maybe no one was using honeybees near you to pollinate-they aren't native so they tend to be only in hives of producers.

    Aunt Debbi, how terrific that your boys know about caterpillars etc already. Maybe things ARE looking up for our future too, if children are learning and caring early.
    Lintys, I hear you on the wasps/hornets. We had white-faced wasps here last year and while I never was stung, it was interesting watching them chase the hummingbirds from the feeder.
    Randy and Jamie, CCD is a bit of a mystery. Here in Nova Scotia, there were no reportings of it, and in fact, my honey producer had the best year he'd had in many years. In neighbouring New Brunswick, not so good. So there's something going on, for sure, but meanwhile, we will do what we can for all pollinators.
    Nancy, that's sea holly (Eryngium) in the blue-flowered photos. Very great bee-magnet, and longlasting, too.
    Pam, good for you with the clover! Part of the problem with people not understanding about diversity is that they've become disengaged from the land, from where their food comes from, from the natural cycle of the seasons. They just don't know...so teaching them like you are doing, and others too, is a big help.
    Kim, poor puppy-dog! You'd think that dogs would learn, wouldn't you? I've watched the cats watching bees but I don't know if any of them have ever been stung. If they have, it wasn't noticeable.
    Princess Haiku, the blue flowers are eryngium, or sea holly--they like dry growing conditions but this one, E. planum, I find the easiest to grow in my heavy soil, and it selfseeds politely.
    Joey, Yes, I think that bees sense that we're not afraid, that we like them, and mean them no ill. Hornets and wasps are more aggressive and problematic for some, but we don't find them too much trouble.
    Lisa, yes, there's such a nice peacefulness to being around buzzing bees. I can't wait to see some--another six weeks or so til the crocus and dandelions start!

  24. We're bee, butterfly and bird friendly here too Jodi. Bumbles are such fun to chase with a camera :) You've caught some wonderful shots here...so pretty against the blue Sea Holly.
    Thanks for pointing us toward Flora! I'll be on the lookout for those particular bees.
    Meanwhile, bee happy! I hope the sunshine is smiling on you today :)

  25. I have a question for all gardeners, why don't YOU have a bee hive? Is it cost for anyone?

  26. From Little Things, if you're referring to honeybees and a beehive, they aren't native here; they're imported by beekeepers. I'm content to provide habitat and food sources for wild, native bees, which are often solitary dwellers or have nests in the ground or trees, not hives. But others in other parts of the world could speak to this question, too.


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