Feb 6 2011

Gardening for the bees in the Southeast: Part II

With no effort on our part, we are already blessed with some feed for the bees, especially in the spring, either on our property or nearby.  To these we have also been adding plants as we could.  We want to help fill in the major gap that occurs during hot weather.

Here are some of the plants that help take care of our bees, along with our thoughts on their value:

Winter

Dandelion, henbit and charlock in nearby fields will bloom throughout winter except in the coldest spells. In the dead of winter, I usually see only honeybees working these, but toward spring, other species join them. (No we do not herbicide our lawn “weeds,” as these are important forage plants – and we don’t want to contaminate our ground water. Plus their blossoms are pretty in their own right!)  All three of these plants are introductions, but so far as we know, there are no native plants that fulfil the same function

Spring

Red maple trees bloom nearby in February, and willow trees soon after. Both provide forage (food) for honeybees. Tupelo adds a major nectar source in April. There are a few flowering quinces in the neighborhood; bees love these. Crocus and daffidils also get bee attention.

Redbud trees also bloom early, usually by the end of March. Carpenter bees and honeybees tackle redbuds furiously. Chickasaw plum and some domestic plums in the neighborhood are the first of the fruit blossoms that supply lots of nectar. Dogwood is NOT a significant bee plant; bees rarely visit their blossoms.

Oaks, pecans, hickories and pines shed a lot of pollen, which bees sometimes gather, but it is of low nutritional value. An occasional black locust is highly favored by the bees, as is Carolina cherry.

Dewberry is a major pollen source in March and early April, followed closely by blackberry which gives both pollen and nectar. Apples, crabapples, and pears usually feed the first queen bumblebees, though I have occasionally seen queens on plums earlier. Apples are very important for orchard mason bees, carpenter bees and honeybees. We have planted low-chill apple varieties which are suited to the South.

Wisteria and azaleas explode with blooms in April and are important feed for bumblebees. The first tiny Lasioglossom bees are often found on the stamens of azalea blossoms.

Carolina jessamine yields toxic nectar that kills honeybee brood. Photina (red tip) is a good feeder, if it is not trimmed for hedges.

Dahoon holly and boxwood are practically attacked by a variety of bee species. A few years ago, bradford pears were likewise covered with thousands of andrena bees when they bloomed. Today these bees are very scarce; you’d be lucky to see a half dozen on a tree, along with a couple honeybees and a bumblebee or two.

By the end of April, spiderwort is worked by a variety of bee species, especially Lasioglossum. Plantain also begins to feed Lasioglossum bees. A variety of blueberry and huckleberry species bloom from early April to early June, giving the blueberry bees good forage. Carpenter bees love these as well, but do not pollinate them, as they cut slits at the base of the petals to steal the nectar. Carpenter bees will also do this for honeysuckle, buckeye, and other flowers with a deep corolla.

Megachilid bee on privit

Privit is regarded as invasive, but this megachilid bee doesn't care. Privits that are kept trimmed for hedges do not bloom, but when they go wild, become small trees which provide excellent bee forage.

By late spring we have more garden flowers, including vegetables like squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, butter beans, and okra. Marigolds do feed a few bees, but do not seem to be of major interest. Likewise zinnia seems to be of some small use. Cosmos has been a major hit with the bees. Bee balm is significant, but only blooms for a short time. Its wild relative, horsemint is much better for bees. Cultivated morning glories are a big bust, as bees show little interest, though their wild (and highly invasive) relatives are much more attended, by bumblebees and megachilids.

Passion flowers are very good, and clematis attracts a few bumblebees. Lantana and butterfly bush seem to only be important to butterflies. Lasioglossum seems to love parsley blooms.

Sunflowers are a major hit with melissodes bees and honeybees. We plan to plant more of these – our only complaint being the relatively short bloom period for each planting.

A halictid bee on sunflower blossom

A halictid bee loads up on sunflower pollen.

Summer

When the hot weather of summer comes, there is a dearth of flowers. A few trumpet vines help feed bumblebees. An invasive plant, Brazillian vervain, supplies nectar through the hottest periods. Bitterweed begins to bloom in the heat, and is heavily worked by megachilid bees. Butterfly weed is present in sparse amounts; we aim to increase the supply of this. There are also occasional pine hibiscuses, which bees seem to love.

Sumac is also present around in spotty amounts – the southern variety blooming in midsummer, unlike in the north, where it is a spring flower. Sometimes sumac will be literally covered with bees. too bad it’s not a common plant.

Caryopteris – a plant we brought from Tennessee – gets wild applause from the bumblebees.

Another hot weather plant is crape myrtle, which does get a steady, though small amount of attention from bees.  Once cotton begins to bloom, honeybees and bumblebees will concentrate there, and of course, they frequently get poisoned.

Fall

By late August, we begin to see more fall flowers which bloom in a progression through the end of November. Joe Pye weed is wonderful for the bees, as are any of the various goldenrod species. Many asters, such as mistflower, also bloom through the fall, with frostweed continuing after frost many years.

Rudbeckia and Bidens are extremely important wildflowers, through the fall, feeding a variety of bee species.

We’ve listed quite a number of forage plants on or near our home. We could list a lot more, within driving distance.  But many of them, though important, are quite sparse in occurance. Roadside mowing and herbicide use, hedgerow removal, pine plantations and the chemlawn mentality have removed many of the wild bee forage plants.

Flower gardens can help, but many of the showiest flowers are overbred and of little value to bees. We tore out our roses, when we found that the bees had no interest in them and they were prone to fungus diseases and needed lots of spraying to keep them pretty.

In another post, we’ll be talking about native vs alien plants, and some of our use of each. Your thoughts (on the topic) are always appreciated.


Feb 5 2011

Gardening for bees in the Southeast: Part I

Not only are we sorting seeds and making plans for our veggie garden, but we are planning for the bees as well. It’s kind of a rule of thumb around here that we don’t plant anything unless it feeds us, or feeds the bees, or feeds wildlife.

In planning for the bees, we want to have a continuous supply of nectar and pollen sources throughout the growing season, which extends from mid-March to about December 1 here in coastal South Carolina.

We have a huge flush of spring blossoms here, so we don’t need to focus on this too much. Then follows a hot, sometimes dry, summer season, which is quite barren for the bees. Autumn brings back more flowers again, expecially if we have good late summer rains. But fall is not usually as good as spring for the bees.

Megachilid bee on butterfly weed

Megachilid bee on butterfly weed: Note the "scopa" - the pollen collecting hairs on her belly, which enable her to be an excellent pollinator, as well as save some pollen to feed her babies.

 

(Note that we are not speaking just of honeybees for this garden project, though they will benefit. There are several hundred species of bees in the Southeast, ranging from the large carpenter bee, and some of the larger species of bumblebees, down to tiny Lasioglossum and Ceratina bees that are sometimes hardly bigger than gnats. Favorites of mine include the “Jelly Belly” bees – megachilids that carry bright colored pollen on their abdomens and my “Little Green Bees from Mars” the gorgeous in-your-face green colored halictid bees.)

Besides plantings, we provide a number of other services to help the bees. We have dripping water for drinks and mud for the ones who use this. We have patches of bare ground, both sandy and clay for the bees that prefer ground nesting. We also have reeds and bored wood blocks for nesting sites.

And we are extremely careful with pesticides – never using them in any way that would contaminate nectar and pollen. We can’t control what our neighbors do, but we’ve done our best to educate them that you can’t lay Sevin dust all over your blooming squash and cukes…or you’ll bite the hand that feeds you!

In other posts, I’ll talk about some individual flowers that are of special interest, and we’ll discuss what we already have in trees, fruits, and wild and domestic flowers that feed bees. But right now I want to list the wildflower seeds that I have already purchased or plan to very soon. These are ones that seem to be of special value to a variety of bee species.

After careful consideration, this is the core list of native plant choices to add to our collection this year:

1. Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa (great for Monarch butterflies as well)

2. Anise Hyssop, Agastache foeniculum

3. Rice Button Aster, Aster dumosus

4. White Swan Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea

5. New York Ironweed, Vernonia noveboracensis and Purple Ironweed, Vernonia fasciculata

5. Joe Pye Weed, Eupatorium dubius or E. fistulis

6. Hairy Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum pilosum

In another post we’ll also review some non-native possibilities that I may also plant.

This is a regional list, of course. But most of the lists I’ve seen are for the North or for the West. These are ones that I’m certain will do exceptionally well in the Southeast.

Note that I’m focusing on perennials. This is partly because I’m a cheapskate who doesn’t want to keep on buying the same seeds each year – and partly because we are looking at the long term.

People often talk about “attracting bees” to get their garden veggies pollinated. This is a crock! It’s very shortsighted thinking. If we just plant attractive flowers, the few bees around will simply bypass our garden veggies. We want to plan and plant for the long term – to build bee populations back up to the way they used to be. Then there will be enough competition that even less attractive garden veggies will get bee visits.

Lasioglossum on spiderwort

Little Lasioglossum bees love to collect pollen from the spiderwort wildflowers that are already established at our little wildlife refuge.

Most of these will be started early to be transplanted after frost danger is past. I hope to able to sell some plants to recoup my costs. And what I can’t sell or use, I’ll probably plant out in some wild spots and hope for the best.

I would love to hear from others, particularly if you can add some very good species to the list, but all comments are welcome.


Jan 21 2011

Honeybees have more pesticide protection than wild bees

Unfortunately those who keep and work with honeybees, and those who work with wild bees sometimes become such strong advocates that they divide into warring camps, when they have so much in common that they should be working together.

Honeybees have an industry organized around them; wild bees have some support groups, but they tend to be small. But the bees have very similar needs of habitat, parasites and pests problems, and especially pesticide practices of their forage areas.

I received a very strong objection from a wild bee advocate, to my statement that honeybees have more protection than wild bees. The advocate pointed out the various groups that have arisen to help protect the wild bees.

Because it was a private e-mail, I cannot post that person’s comments here, but perhaps I was not sufficiently specific in my statement, so I will post  a clarification: I’ve found that anyone who works in a public job (research, extension) is highly reluctant to take on pesticide misuse (job security perhaps?).  And the pesticide cops here in SC, very pointedly exclude wild bees from pesticide label protection.

On the other hand, beekeepers like myself have been active and vocal in trying to get enforcement of label directions. Any time there are crops or weeds in bloom in an application area, bees (of all kinds) are at risk, and the pesticide labels have specific instructions to not apply when bees will be damaged by the contamination of their food supply.

Agricultural advisors such as extension, and the pesticide cops themselves, usually do not base their bee protection advice on the pesticide labels.

Instead they suggest a “run-around” (ie. notify beekeepers) that enables pesticide users to evade the label directions – and offers NO protection at all for wild bees.

Ask any serious beekeeper, and he will tell you of times when his beehives were knocked out of productive service by a pesticide applied in violation of the label (whether or not he or she was notified of the application). Sometimes the entire field force of a hive is wiped out. Other times the adults do not die, but bring long lasting poisoned pollen back to be stored away in the hives, then fed to the young during the winter when the hives are extremely vulnerable, due to lack of fresh clean pollen being foraged. Thus a summer poison can kill a hive months later.

Now honeybee hives that had damage usually get the keeper’s best efforts at salvage/recovery, including feeding, removal of contaminated frames of pollen, and sometimes combining two or more hives – better one hive surviving, than two or more weak ones dying over the winter.

Wild bees get none of this help. If the adult bee is poisoned and dies, there will be no more nest building. If it carries contaminated pollen back to provision its young, the young will die, and there will be no next generation.

I am sure you understand that I am glad that wild bees are getting more, attention, and thus may be getting more protection. But all it takes is one severe “hit” at the wrong time to do some serious damage to a species in the area.

And I think you’ll agree that it’s easier (albeit expensive) to replace lost honeybees than to replace lost wild bees when they are destroyed.

That is why wild bee advocates and honeybee advocates need to join together. Whenever there is sloppy, careless pesticide applications that do not take the bee protection label instructions seriously, BOTH wild and domestic bees will suffer, but the wild bees will probably suffer more.

Note: A flow chart that organizes label directions to protect bees can be found at:  http://pollinator.com/pesticides/flowchart.htm


Dec 4 2010

Best paper yet on Colony Collapse Disorder

Without any additions, clarifications, or critiques, I can freely endorse the linked article as the most balanced and comprehensive article I’ve seen on the subject of CCD:

Bees in Crisis: A comprehensive situation report: 

http://www.lab-times.org/editorial/e_173.html 

While this article specifically concerns honeybees, it is of great interest to those concerned about wild bee species as well. Honeybees have more research and more protectors, and may well serve as indicators as to what is happening with wild bees.


Dec 4 2010

New guide available on increasing native bee benefits

Native bee benefits:  How to increase native bee pollination on your farm

Written by:  Neal Williams, Bryn Mawr College, (610-526-5091, nwilliam@brynmawr.edu)
and Rachael Winfree, Rutgers University (732-932-8315, rwinfree@rci.rutgers.edu

Can be downloaded from:
http://xa.yimg.com/kq/groups/17598545/369590188/name/NativeBees2009.pdf

The pamphlet is a very informative one, with some really good photos as well, and I commend the authors on providing a good new resource for pollination management.

While I heartily endorse much of the pamphlet as very valuable, there are a couple misleading points,  and one glaring error that I’d like to point out as a critique. Perhaps the authors need to consider this for an update.

1. Much is made of colony collapse disorder in honeybees. This is similar to past unexplained die-offs that have occasionally occured in beekeeping history, only this one was at a larger scale. Much of this loss seems to have run its course, and the bees were easily and quickly replaced, except in cases of beekeeper bankruptcy. At any rate the beekeeping industry, with some research help, is on the way to solutions to CCD.

What is not made clear is that wild bees are not so quickly and easily replaced; thus are of much more concern. And with this, we go back to the biggest problem for all bees, which beekeepers have been trying to solve for a couple generations, and have been unable to get any significant help.

The problem is pesticide misuse – violation of the pesticide label directions – that continue to occur. In most cases wild bees and feral honeybees have no legal protection; lip service is given to protecting managed honeybees, but most “protection” involves advising pesticide users to evade the pesticide directions, by notification of beekeepers.

A pesticide user is the one who makes the choice to use a pesticide, and he is responsible for its safe use, yet these notification schemes allow him to dump the trouble and expense for protecting the bees onto others who are not benefited and have no way to recoup the costs.

Pesticide misuse is the greatest single danger to all bee species. Wild bee advocates and beekeepers need to be working together to get enforcement of label directions – which generally forbid applications in conditions where they are a threat to foraging bees. (And the labels only say “bees,” yet the pesticide cops tend to interpret this clear direction as only applying to honeybees.)

2. Several times the pamphlet mentions “attracting bees.” This is a flawed mindset. When populations are thin, bees can’t be attracted, or if they are attracted in small numbers, they tend to go to the rich food sources planted to attract them, rather than to the crops that need pollination.

What is needed is another mindset – pollination managers need to have an overall view that strives to restore stable normal populations of bees by giving them habitat, including nesting sites, continuous forage, and pesticide protection. The pamplet does explain this, but undoes it to a certain extent, by frequent reference to “attracting bees.” When pollinator populations return to normal, competition for forage will ensure that ALL blossoms get the required visitation.

3. Carpenter bees are NOT good blueberry pollinators. They are notorious nectar thieves with flowers with a deep corrolla, such as blueberries. Then they leave a slit in the side of the corrolla, enabling other bees to happily steal the nectar as well, without contacting the sexual organs of the flower.

Carpenter bees are excellent pollinators of fruits with open-faced flowers, such as blackberries, apples, plums, peaches; and of flowers designed for a large bee, such as passionflower.