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.


One Response to “Gardening for bees in the Southeast: Part I”

  • Anna Says:

    We live in the mountains of southwest Virginia, so not quite the same climate (although we do have masses of your last three species growing wild.) We have honeybees and I keep an eye on what they’re obsessed by, which has included widely known plants such as sunflowers, basswood, and sourwood, but also less commonly talked about “weeds” like smartweed, greater ragweed (a huge pollen source for them), and virgin’s bower. They also seem to depend heavily on trees for early spring pollen — I couldn’t tell which ones, but it seems worthwhile to plant an elm or maple or willow if you don’t have any around.

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