I am glad that our fair city has lifted its misguided ban on keeping honeybees in urban back yards. The city is surely a sweeter place for their presence, and our gardens may even benefit from visits by our neighbors’ bees. But they may not benefit as much as you might think, and I won’t be eagerly awaiting their arrival on my block. That’s because our native bumblebees are excellent pollinators and could use a little help from home gardeners to thrive.
You may have heard about the afflictions threatening honeybee populations, such as the mysterious colony collapse disorder and the ravages of certain mites. University of Minnesota entomology professor Marla Spivak has made the plight of the honeybee the focus of much of her research, for which she is known around the country. But Spivak has said that the challenges facing honeybees go way beyond any specific disease or organism and instead stem from the heart of modern industrial agriculture, where diverse patches of wildflowers are replaced with acres and acres of single crops, like corn and wheat, and which also relies heavily on the use of pesticides. “Our environment is not friendly to bees,” she says.
Bumblebees are affected by many of these same factors, such as pesticide exposure and limited food options; but don’t assume that this only pertains to agriculture. Vast acreage of our cities and suburbs are given over to nonproductive monocultures in the form of lawns, which, in their purest form, offer no nectar or pollen for bees at all.
Gardeners have reason to care about bumblebees. They are more effective than honeybees as pollinators of some of our favorite vegetable plants, especially tomatoes, because of their robust vibrations, known as “buzz pollination.” In fact, commercial tomato growers keep hives of bumblebees in order to ensure their presence for pollination. Bumblebees also pollinate our native wildflowers and other early spring bloomers because they are active at cooler temperatures than are honeybees.
Home gardeners can help our native bumblebees by providing the plants and conditions that favor them. Another University of Minnesota professor, Elaine Evans, has been researching and advocating for bumblebees, and together with Spivak and Ian Burns, has written a handbook, “Befriending Bumble Bees,” to help people better understand and help these native pollinators. Among their tips are directions for “adopting” a bumblebee queen and building her a special box to house her colony. (The book is available from the U of M Extension Service and through their website, befriendingbumblebees.com.)
We are already seeing helpful trends that should favor bumblebees: More people are gardening this year than have for many years; the park board has reduced its expanses of mowed lawn in favor of flowering native plants, and they are using organic methods in more of their flower gardens (the Longfellow Gardens by Minnehaha Park being the most recent such conversion); and one consequence of the foreclosure crisis is that the lawns surrounding abandoned homes are being overrun by flowering weeds that offer more nectar sources. Not that I think empty houses are good for neighborhoods, but at least somebody’s gaining some benefit from all those oxeye daisies, dandelions, cinquefoil and escaped garden flowers proliferating in abandoned lots.
We can encourage agricultural practices that are better for the bees by buying organic foods when we can, and supporting small farmers at our local farmers’ markets. But perhaps the most important thing we can do to help bumblebees is to not use pesticides ourselves. The inadequacy of putting up signs warning that the grass is temporarily toxic should be obvious (bees can’t read), but what really hurts the bees is that pesticides turn lawns into barren monocultures.
Also, plant plenty of native and old-fashioned flowers to provide nectar. That doesn’t mean that you should not grow any of the more exotic and popular cultivars, like pelargoniums (better known as geraniums) or gerbera daisies—just don’t overlook the old-fashioned cottage garden plants, like hollyhocks, snapdragons, daisies and monarda; as well as native prairie flowers, like true geraniums, sunflowers, echinacea and the like. And seed a little white clover in the lawn while you’re at it.
We can gently lead the way to a more botanically diverse and bee-friendly city by example, and it will help if we keep our own lawns and gardens tidy around the edges to make them more palatable to the uninitiated. I remember the day when a certain fastidious neighbor, who for years had complained about our unmanicured landscape, walked across the street to thank us for the butterflies (what’s good for the bees is also good for the butterflies). People will “get it” eventually.
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