Planting for bees
If you’re like me, dreaming about gardens in the dead of winter, start dreaming about a vegetable garden surrounded by beds of flowers.
With all the problems honeybees have been having in recent years, it’s important to attract as many pollinators to your vegetable garden as possible if you want good production. Squash, pumpkins, corn, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant — anything that flowers first and then fruits — needs to be pollinated. Greens, or things that you eat when they are flowers (broccoli!) need pollinators to make seeds, but not for your supper.
But if you want your corn to be fully kernelled out, you need good pollination. Same if you want lots of beans and peas. And even if you are not growing vegetables, pollinators are important to anyone who likes to eat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about a third of all the food we put into our mouths depends on the work of pollinators.
Honeybees, because they live in colonies tens of thousand strong, have always taken on the bulk of pollination, especially for our fruit and nut crops. But bee colonies have been suffering for decades because of parasites, fungal disease and viruses. It the past seven years, there’s a new and mysterious problem, dubbed “colony collapse disorder.” Its causes are still unknown, but since 2006 beekeepers have been reporting losses of 30 percent to 90 percent per hive. For honey producers, this is tragic. For growers and eaters, it’s downright scary.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency lists possible causes of CCD, including diseases and parasites, hive stress, pesticide poisoning and loss of foraging habitat.
In the past few years, the pesticides getting the most attention for their possible effect on bees are neonicotinoids, which act on insects’ central nervous system, causing paralysis and death, according to the EPA.
Studies done in Europe, in which bumblebee and honeybee colonies were exposed to neonicotinoids, found high death rates, similar to CCD. Several European countries have banned neonicotinoids used to treat seeds, including sunflower, corn and rape seed, which is used for canola oil.
The pesticide is a chemically made relative of nicotine, which has long been used as a natural pesticide. Treating seeds with neonicotinoids is effective because the pesticide remains in the plant as it grows. Most commercially grown corn and soybeans are treated with neonicotinoids.
The EPA is studying the matter. “Data suggest that neonicotinic residues can accumulate in pollen and nectar of treated plants and may represent a potential exposure to pollinators,” the agency says on its website.
“Adverse effects data as well as beekill incidents have also been reported, highlighting the potential direct and/or indirect effects of neonicotinic pesticides. Therefore, among other refinements to ecological risk assessment during registration review, the Agency will consider potential effects of the neonicotinoids to honeybees and other pollinating insects.”
Last year a group of beekeepers and environmental groups petitioned the EPA to ban neonicotinoids. The EPA and USDA call that premature, but continue their investigating.
In the meantime, we can opt for grass-fed or organic meats, a small step in reducing the need for treated seed, since most of our corn and soybeans are grown for animal feed.
And we can do everything we can to promote habitat for bees — honeybees, bumblebees, orchard bees and solitary bees — and other pollinators, including butterflies, birds and moths.
That means letting fields of wildflowers grow. If you have a field or a big yard, let parts of it go wild. Mow once a year if you’re not using the yard, and enjoy the vetch, daisies, cornflowers and goldenrod. The bees will too.
And plant flowers. Masses attract more pollinators than single plantings, so think of walls of flowers around your house, or the edges of your yard, or islands of flowers in your vegetable garden or lawn. Flowers with open petals — such as cosmos, sunflowers and asters — attract honeybees. So do flowers with short tube-shaped petals, like lavender and white clover. Deeper tubes or trumpet-like petals — such as bee balm, red clover, milkweed and trumpet vine — attract bumblebees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
Look for variety in color, flower shape and bloom time, to attract as many different pollinators as you can, for as long a time as you can. Let the wild flowers grow. Let some of your vegetables plants go to flower — it’s OK if you let one of your basil plants bolt, or let a lettuce get tall and flower. It will bring pollinators right into the center of your vegetable garden.
You can find lists on the Web of plants — annuals, perennials, bushes and trees — that will attract bees and other pollinators. Just make sure you find a list for our region and climate.
Planting for all pollinators will help their populations and hopefully support honeybees until we figure out what is killing them off. And the flowers will brighten your own environment too, and improve your vegetable yield.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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