Wild city // Help your honeybees

Our honeybees continue to struggle. There are massive die-offs each year. We don’t know why. There are two things you can do to help the bees: add the right plants to your garden, and quit spraying your garden for bugs.

Try the Friends School Plant Sale at the State Fair grounds on Mother’s Day weekend (May 11–13). Choose from 23 wild flowers and two native grasses good for bees in the Native Wild Flowers area of the sale. Go to page 42 of the online catalog (at FriendsSchoolPlantSale.com) for a list of these plants. 

Be forewarned that native plants are different from the usual hybrid garden annuals and perennials. The natives are pretty, but not as showy, or as well mannered as the others. I’m growing cup plant, for example, which is on the good bee plant list. It grows tall (head high), leafy and tough. The flowers on this big guy are yellow, and only slightly larger than daisies. My husband shakes his head: too much green stuff, and not enough flower. But the bees are all over these flowers, so we are keeping them in our garden. 

The natives are programmed to go forth and multiply. Our cup plant casts its seeds all over and you get extra little seedlings poking up. You can cut the seed clusters off the mature plants late in the season to prevent this, or give the seedlings to friends.

Advantages to growing native plants are many. They are adapted to our climate, so you don’t have to fuss over them. They don’t need extra soil amendments. Many of them are drought tolerant and do just fine without extra watering. They are winter hardy — they return reliably each spring. And, importantly, they provide pollen and nectar for bees.

Anise hyssop is another native plant on the list that bees love. I’ve grown it, too, for the past a few years. It casts its seeds around even more vigorously than the cup plant, but the tiny seedlings are flimsy and easy to pull out. This plant grows to be knee-high, and develops purple flower heads later in the season. The leaves, when crushed, smell like licorice, and they can be dried for tea.

If you are new to native plants, and you want to make a start, but you don’t want to deal with anything that self-seeds, you could try Virginia bluebells. They are known for spreading from the roots, but I’ve had one clump in my garden for years and it has only gotten a bit larger.

There is some interesting research being done on what has been ailing our bees, and it involves pesticides. A key advantage to growing native plants is that they are resistant to insect pests. Even if their leaves do get chewed on, their roots systems are sturdy, and the plants come roaring back.

The recent research says a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids may be causing colony collapse disorder, which is the name given to the bee die-offs.

These compounds are found in most products gardeners buy at garden stores to kill bugs on plants. 

But get this: The amount of these compounds in products used by backyard gardeners is something like forty times greater than in the sprays farmers use on their crops. There is a controversy over whether bees react to low levels of neonicotinoids, but there is a growing body of evidence that high levels of these compounds mess with the bees ability to navigate and also make them susceptible to disease and stress. 

Some European countries have banned these pesticides. In this country they are used even in plant nurseries, so you may bring a plant home from the garden store and unwittingly poison the bees in your yard.

In an online Wired Science article called “Backyard Pesticide Use May Fuel Bee Die-Offs,” a toxicologist from the University of Minnesota, Vera Krischik, says: “I don’t think anybody should be using these things [neonicotinoids] in their backyards. I think they don’t understand that they’re having such a negative impact.”

She suggests we start using warning labels: “Maybe a big butterfly with an X over it and a sign that says, ‘May Kill Pollinators.’” In the meantime, read the labels. These ingredients are the neonicotinoids: Imidacloprid, acetamiprid, dinotedfuran, clothianidin, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam. Or, better yet, don’t use pesticides.

I am reminded of an article I read recently about people raising bees in New York City. The hives are on the tops of tall buildings. The bees are doing well because they are exposed to few pesticides, the article said. We are living in times when the concrete jungle is safer and more congenial for bees than our yards or farms. Amazing.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.