How to Plant for Bees

submitted by Dylan M., 5th grader, Whittier International

There is a Dr. Smart (that is his real name!) who works as a researcher at the Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota. He is making a blood test for honeybees that helps people figure out if bees are getting the right nutrition. The lab is also figuring out how to treat bee diseases, and what plants they need to eat. Why do they care?

At least 30 percent of our foods exist because bees and a few other creatures pollinate the vegetables, fruits, nuts and flowers we eat. But many of these bees are dying because of: 1) certain pesticides, 2) not enough “bee flowers” they need for food, and 3) diseases that are hurting them. This is a problem called the Colony Collapse Disorder. (I wrote about this a few weeks ago.)

And it is serious. From April 2014 to April 2015, managed honey bee colonies were lost at a rate of 42%, up from 34% the previous year, and the second-highest annual loss seen, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Bee Lab and expert gardeners in Minneapolis are helping us understand what we can do to protect our Minnesota bees. Before I tell you what I’ve learned from them, let me clear something up. Bees are generally nice. Wasps are their annoying cousins.

The Difference Between Wasps and Bees

The Bee Lady: Dr. Marla Spivak

cfans_asset_315186I went to a talk that Dr. Marla Spivak had about bees. She’s considered the expert “Bee Lady,” and runs the Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota. She is working to breed better bees, such as “Minnesota Hygenic Bees,” which are able to detect and remove diseases and parasites from hives. Sounds almost like a science-fiction robot, doesn’t it? — but scientists are making them real.

How much space do bees need to pollinate safely? Dr. Spivak says native bees are happy to stay within a half-mile of the nest, which means your backyard can be very helpful to them. Honeybees, on the other hand, will forage more than two miles from the nest (they can cover 8,000 acres!) so need much more space to roam. They will forage along roadways if there are sufficient flowers. (There is talk that the airport will start featuring bee-friendly flowers!).

Bees know how to take care of themselves — they can navigate around cars and airplanes safely. But YOU might need to be careful — bees do like to rest on the ground, so don’t go barefoot if you’re running on their food or you could get stung!

And if you’ve heard about “killer bees” — don’t worry. An aggressive breed of bee “with a bad attitude” lives in tropical places, Dr. Spivak said. But it’s too cold and wet in Minnesota for them to want to live here.

What Should We Plant for Bees?

Just like us, bees need a certain combination of nutrients. Their bodies turn nectar into honey, and feed their young protein from pollen.

Because there are many species of bees — some have long tongues that can get into deep flowers, some get pollen only from certain flowers, some seek food in spring, others in the fall — we should offer many different types of plants to feed a variety of bees, and flowers that will bloom at different months, in spring, summer and fall.

Growing fruits and vegetables can be healthy sources for bees. It is part of the natural life cycle: tomatoes need bees to thrive, for example, and certain bees need tomatoes for pollen.

Both places say the smartest thing you can do is go to a place that sells plants (a nursery) and watch where the bees like to hang out. Those are the flowers you want!

Talking to Expert Gardener: Russ Henry

I also got to talk to Russ “Rooster” Henry, Minneapolis owner of Giving Tree Gardens. He told me what he likes to plant to help the bees.

“Bees and butterflies need flowers of all sizes and shapes,” he said. “Gardens that bloom with a wide variety of native flowers through the whole growing season are the best backyard habitat for pollinators.” See the Bee Lab list above for details on pollinator-friendly plants.

Russ Henry says we should buy from local, organic farmers because they are making great fruits and vegetables that are safe and nutritious for our bees and butterflies.

Keep Bee-Flowers Clean

Both Dr. Spivak and Russ Henry say that all pesticides are not the problem for bees. But “systemic” pesticides are an important danger because they get into the plants and make bees sick, which gets into our fruits and vegetables. Do not treat pollinator-friendly flowers and plants with pesticides (insecticides, fungicides or herbicides).

There will be more on about pesticide research.

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