People are in the fight for the rights of bees these days. After a couple of award-winning documentaries (Vanishing of the Bees, Colony) and some real worry in the headlines, the masses have shown up, at least in spirit. The kings of agrochemicals are being badgered, outlawed, and lampooned around every turnover of borders, all in the name of bees.
Now, we mustn’t pretend like there are no other voices shouting from the other side of the garden: Big ag and big business-related media have assured us we are in no danger of losing our bees. According to Forbes, bee populations are growing, pesticides are not killing them, and but a miniscule amount of our food requires pollination from bees.
Personally, I’m one of the types that would rather skip the chemicals, trust the scientists and documentary filmmakers, and jump on the bandwagon to actively try to make sure bees are looked after. For any permaculturalist worth his or her acreage (however small it might be), that means growing some plants, and when plants are going in the ground, that means finding ways to stack functions.
So, if one function is to attract bees, we should also strive to perhaps get some food or medicine out of the deal, some garden assistance beyond pollination, and whatever other reasons we might squeeze out the plants we choose. Without further ado, here are few plants to help attract wild bees, as well as provide other benefits.
Ever the wonderful garden (and kitchen) addition, herbs, despite often being used as a natural insect repellant, actually entice bees into the garden. In particular, bees are fans basil, mint, rosemary, sage, thyme, dill, chives and on the list grows. Of course, with herbs, the garden also gets a pest preventer, our meals get more flavor, and our bodies get a major health boost. Many culinary herbs are also perennial or self-seed readily, so they are easy to cultivate. And, there varieties well suited for most climates.
But, there are many other herbs that, while not necessarily frequent additions to the kitchen, do quite a bit for the garden, besides attract bees. Dynamic accumulators (soil builders) like comfrey and borage are both medicinal, they are both great mulch producers, and they will reproduce like mad (they are considered weeds by conventional thinkers). Then, plants like lavender has kitchen potential but is mostly revered for its scent and the therapeutic qualities related, as well as repealing pests, tolerating arid climates, and being a natural for beauty products.
Berries of all sorts are great attractors of bees, and bees in turn are said to improve the flavor of some berries. Strawberries are a bee favorite, and they make for great, productive, perennial garden groundcover that provides a lot of highly valued food. Blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and the various hybrids and family members also entice bees. Additionally, they provide food, act as great garden hedges/borders, create habitat for wildlife, and generally do okay with a bit of shade and acidic soil.
It’s not that hard to figure out, really. Where there are flowers, there are bees, and fruit trees tend to be big flower bearers. Stone fruits in particular are great for attracting bees, and they provide food, as well as are available in dwarf varieties, filling niches for smaller production trees in the food forest. Scaling a bit above them, apples and pears are wonderfully large trees with heaps of fruit and readily function as the center or over-story piece of a guild. Being larger garden additions with more flowers, fruit trees also attract more pollinators in general.
Fruiting annual vegetables are great for attracting bees, so the nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants), squashes, and legumes all do us a great favor. Of course, squashes make great groundcovers or can work vertically up a fence, as well as provide loads of food. Legumes are helping us fix nitrogen into the soil (natural fertilization) and protein and fiber into our diets, and nightshades are another high volume food producer that fill vertical space. Another nice factor about these fruiting annuals is that they provide a mix of different flowers at different times of the year. Rotated gardens and time-stacked beds can help maintain pollen availability for bees.
We’ve already mentioned comfrey and borage, but there are other weeds that attract bees and belong in our low-energy efforts towards cultivation. Weeds grow readily, and many of them readily supply us with services, such as food and serious nutrients. Dandelions are a great example, offering edible leaves, soil-loosening taproots, and fun fuzzy heads to play with. Plantain is another good choice, and it is also well known for soothing bee stings, should that old storyline play out. It also has many other medicinal uses and is a highly nutritious wild edible.
Biodiversity Is the Bee’s Best Buddy
The obvious guide to planting for the bees is to cultivate an abundance of flowering plants and trees, perhaps a simpler way of summarizing all of the above information. Sometimes it helps to have some more specific names and ideas to work from, so hopefully these plant lists have been of value, as well as provided thoughts as to the other functions different additions might perform.
Cultivating any one of these plants alone is obviously a plus for bees, but in reality, it’s the diverse combination of them all that is of real benefit. Bees are susceptible to large monocultures that create vast oceans of crops that all flower at the same time before disappearing and leaving the landscape largely lacking of pollen to be harvested. With biodiversity, something is always flowering for the bees and something is always fruiting for us. This is how we can keep them around and ourselves fed.
Including bee hives as a design element is also a good option for some, though there are sometimes restriction or logistics preventing such things. Nevertheless, maintaining hives can provide garden pollination, as well as honey, beeswax, and other products resulting from bee domestication. Different types of insect hotels can also be away to attract wild bees, not only the standard farmed honeybee. This creates more biodiversity (in animal and, resultantly so, plant form) in a design.
So, for those who are ready to rage on behalf of the bees, perhaps the best way is to get out in the garden and grow food. A lot of different kids of food. Turn that lawn into something burgeoning with flowers, fruits and vegetables, as well as bees. It’s something with which we can all provide a helping hand. Plus, we get to enjoy gazing at those beautiful plants, eating that lovely produce, and feeling the health benefits of being active in the kitchen and the garden.
Feature Header: Honeybees (Jennifer C.)