Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Welcoming Bees to your Home Garden

I have come to love honeybees. My vegetable garden relies on them and other pollinators to be its most productive.

Last year, there was a good bit in the news about commercial bee colonies dwindling down to nothing. It was a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder. As a home gardener living in a Midwestern small town, I was concerned. Farmers rely on pollinators, just like I do. As I found out on The Great Sunflower Project website, bees are responsible for every third bite of food in this country. (And as my boys will remind me, honey tastes awesome on home-made biscuits.)

That's why we've done a few things here on the homestead to help honeybees and pollinators of all kinds to get a leg up.

First, we have eliminated all pesticide use. That means, we do not use lawn fertilizer with grub control or spray insecticide wash on our roses. There has been no spraying the apple tree. I will honestly say that there are plusses to a pesticide-free approach -- I don't have to worry about dangerous chemicals and my children's health. I also don't have to worry that a chemical is blindly damaging the beneficial insects in the garden because it can't tell them from the pests. The only drawback I've encountered is that I have to be more vigilant about identifying pest problems. Honestly, though, it hasn't been too difficult. (I hope to write more this growing season about organic pest control.)

Second, we no longer use broad-leaf weed killer. One of the potential reasons researchers have found for bee deaths is that they may be suffering from poor nutrition -- they may actually be starving. One of the most prolific pollen and nectar sources we can offer bees is the clover that grows on lawns and roadsides. So, instead of killing it with weed & feed, let it grow. There is something wonderful about breathing in the sweet scent of clover and watching the bees work in the sunshine. How did we get to the point as human beings that we value a single-species grass-only lawn over the fragrant softness of a lawn with clover in it? To me, that seems out of balance.

Third, we have created a wildflower garden. Every state has native plants that thrive on the exact weather conditions that Mother Nature provides. They like the soil. They like the water level. They like the sunshine. Why not devote a border area of your yard to them? Our wildflower garden spans the entire back of our yard. We live in town, so it measures about 20 ft by 60 ft. We rake it clear in the Spring and seed it with a Midwest seed mix from American Meadows. Now that it's a few years old, only annual seed is requred. There are plenty of perennials that last from year-to-year.

Our Spring holds brilliant oranges and purples from Siberian Wallflower (above) and Dame's Rocket. Our Summer is blessed by prairie coneflower and evening primrose, zinnias, cosmos, sunflowers and calendula. And our wildflower border continues blooming all the way into the Autumn. It is home to birds and butterflies, some of which we have only seen since we put it in. Last year, we had the joy of watching three pair of goldfinches feeding there daily. The border improves our drainage and soil quality, too.

This year, though, we're planning to do even more. Our family is participating in The Great Sunflower Project's nationwide bee survey. Yours can too. It's super-easy.

Here's how it works:

Home gardeners from all over the country login to Great Sunflower Project and register their home garden. I had to answer some questions about how large my garden was, what kind of sun and water it gets, and whether I live in an urban or rural area.

The Great Sunflower Project will send us free seeds to plant our own Lemon Queen Sunflowers. We promise to care for the plants, and once they bloom, to time how long it takes for 5 bees to come to the sunflower.

Participants will supply information to help complete as large a bee survey as can be gathered.

I am excited to try it with my children. We will plant and care for our sunflowers together, and then I will let them regularly measure the bee population and take pictures to send in. The program is entirely free, and the Great Sunflower Project website has terrific information on bees of all kinds.

What a great way to teach your children about the ways that nature and science can go together. Participating in the Great Sunflower Project would be a great idea for Girl or Boy Scouts or homeschoolers, too.

I hope you'll give it a try!

- Midwest Mom


  1. Love the picture :) how exciting is this a time to do good with our gardens :)

  2. I can't WAIT to get outside this spring! Planning on a few tomato plants and peppers in the very small area on the side of my house. The rest is in shade. I'm allergic to bees so I give them a wide berth, but growing up on a farm I know how needed they are! We, like you, have eliminated all poisons for the "lawn" - can't believe we were all so conned into believing this stuff was "ok" to use! DUH

  3. These ideas are great, and though I'm not in the Midwest, I'll adopt some of them for my yard in the spring.

    Many places are doing what they can to help the bees, including the U.K.: http://is.gd/mOjY

  4. What a cool program! I may have to try this. As it is, we spot apply necessary poisons, sparingly and precisely so we can help the rest of our acreage grow and thrive. I too love the sweet smell of clover.

  5. I am glad to see such interest in our native bees! They are in great danger with all of the pesticides, exotic plants, pavement and mulch. Please be very selective when buying "Native Plants" or "Wildflowers" as many are NOT native and most are INVASIVE. Do your homework, or you will only be harming the bees further. Thanks. Enjoyed the site.

  6. I enjoyed the interesting comments on Welcoming Bees... Our native bees are in dire straits, with pesticides, concrete, mulch, mites and diseases. True, we must provide better habitat for our native bees. Please be aware that all "native" plants are not native and "wildflowers" are truly harmful to wildlife and our native flora. Please educate yourselves on what "native plants" are. Thanks!

  7. Jan and nnn,

    Thank you for your comments and for visiting the site. If you are interested in finding out what "wildflowers" are native or not, your best bet is to call your local university extension. Many state departments of natural resources also have posted lists of invasives on their websites. It's best to check the list for your area.

    Best, Julia aka Midwest Mom


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