Gardenwise: Help Your Garden Bee Best

Pictured Above: Planting pollinator-friendly flowers, such as sunflowers, is one way to sustain bee populations. | Laura Klahre photo

By Susan Tito 

I have a confession: There was a time not long ago when I didn’t like bees. I know, that’s crazy talk coming from a longtime gardener! After all, most people (assuming they didn’t snooze through sixth grade science class) know how beneficial bees and other pollinators are to our planet. What’s there not to like about bees?

My former dislike of the little buzzers dates back to my childhood and my mother’s phobia of stinging insects. She had been stung several times during her lifetime, including once when I was a toddler as she held me in her arms. So, it was no surprise that I developed the same phobia and passed it on to my own kids. 

Looking back, it pains me now to remember my daughter’s first words: “bee hurts.” 

Even though I should have known better, for years I called all striped flying insects “bees.” Ironically, every sting my mother suffered had been from a wasp.

Without the pollination work performed by bees, many of the crops we depend on (such as this apricot tree), would cease to exist. | Laura Klahre photo
Without the pollination work performed by bees, many of the crops we depend on (such as this apricot tree), would cease to exist. | Laura Klahre photo

Until I came to that realization, time spent in the garden was stressful for me, and undoubtedly comical for my neighbors. Upon spotting a bee, I’d stifle a scream, drop my tools and beat a hasty retreat. 

Those occurrences were ridiculously frequent, especially during summer, but as the years wore on, I began to notice that the creatures I fled from showed zero interest in me. Instead, they were hellbent on foraging for pollen, working far harder than I was at the time, freaking out on the garden’s periphery.

Those days seem laughable now. I have mostly conquered my fear of bees, as I can calmly work alongside them (although I am still a bit flinchy around wasps). Over time, I’ve put many plants — such as catmint and coneflower — in my clients’ gardens to encourage bee visits, and I am opposed to the use of pesticides and herbicides that might hurt these pollinators. 

That’s because in a world without bees, there would be fewer beautiful flowers. Most important, if not for bees, we wouldn’t have a lot of our favorite fruit, vegetable and nut crops. 

No one knows this better than beekeeper Laura Klahre, co-owner of Blossom Meadow Farm, a berry grower and jam producer in Southold. “If you want a good yield out of your garden, it all boils down to plant sex,” she said. “A mechanism is needed to move pollen from flower to flower.”

That’s where bees enter the picture.

A lot has been written about declining bee populations, with much of the focus on the plight of the honeybee. I was surprised to learn that New York State has 450 bee species — among them, carpenter bees, sweat bees, mason bees and bumblebees — and all are experiencing population drop-offs.

“The United States continues to have widespread bee declines, including in the Northeast,” Ms. Klahre said. “Researchers from the University of New Hampshire analyzed 119 wild bee species within New Hampshire over the last 125 years using museum data, and 14 species were found to be in significant decline, all of which are important across the Northeast for the pollination of major crops like apples and blueberries.”

Those are sobering facts, but the good news is that everyone can play a role in reversing this trend. For Ms. Klahre, the choice was simple: Raise bees. She launched her beekeeping career with honeybees but switched over to mason bees, a native species, in 2013.

A bee inspects a zucchini flower. | Alaina Claeson photo
A bee inspects a zucchini flower. | Alaina Claeson photo

“Native bees pollinate two to three times better than honeybees and the resulting fruit from native bee pollination is larger, more well-rounded and of a higher quality,” she said.

Mason bees have many great attributes but one of their best traits is that they are gentle and can be held. Stings are extremely rare — only the female has that ability — and occur only if the insect is roughly handled. Even then, the sting is mild and similar in sensation to a mosquito bite. 

Beekeeping isn’t just for farmers: Blossom Meadow Farm makes it easy for anyone to ranch bees. The farm sells mason bee cocoons and cottages and holds a mason bee harvest party every fall. For more information, visit blossommeadow.com.

If you don’t have a bee in your bonnet to raise bees but still want to play a role in helping these creatures, consider adding any of the following pollinator-friendly species to your garden:

Trees: American beech, American linden or Eastern redbud 

Shrubs: Beach plum, highbush blueberry, summersweet or winterberry

Perennials: Anise hyssop, blanket flower, butterfly weed, catmint, coneflower and sunflower

Now get busy like a bee and save the planet!


Susan Tito
Susan Tito

Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design & Consulting (summerlandgardendesign.com). She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society and Garden Communicators International. She can be reached at stito630@gmail.com.

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