It is April 22 – Earth Day – and I am celebrating by writing about honeybees and pollinator plants that will help all pollinators.
How do honey bees pollinate plants? I knew bees had hairy little baskets on their knees that collected pollen while they were wandering around the stamens and anthers of a blossom. When Dan Conlon, beekeeper and president of the Russian Honeybee Breeders Association, spoke at a recent Greenfield Community College Senior Symposium, he showed an enlarged photo of a bee that was covered with pollen. Not only were her pollen baskets full, her skin and the tiny fuzzy feathers around her head and body were covered with grains of pollen. Conlon said it was an electrical charge that attracted the pollen to the bee’s body. When the bee flew to another plant it brushed against another set of anthers, exchanging the pollen, thus pollinating the plant. The pollen baskets are emptied at the hive and stored for food for all the bees.
Electrical charges! Pollination wasn’t just about a little pollen falling out of the pollen baskets.
I also learned that honeybees are not native to North America. They were brought from Europe with the Puritans. Governor John Winthrop brought honeybees, and apple trees with him when he and his family sailed to what became Massachusetts in 1630. By 1650 maple syrup and honey were the main sources of sweetening.
Nowadays commercial beekeepers move thousands of hives around the country to pollinate vegetable and fruit crops. Conlon himself used to put several hives on a wagon and move them around the cucumber fields when the pickle factory was in operation. He explained that a poorly pollinated cucumber would be misshapen and not suitable as a pickle.
Honeybees and the 300 other bee species, are essential to our food supply. On Earth Day we can recognize the benefits of native bees, wasps, butterflies and many other small creatures that do their bit to pollinate.
Don Conlon gave us lots of wonderful information and then got down to the problems faced by the bees. He said that one of the biggest challenges for honeybees is the loss of habit. He told us about an urban/suburban community that decided to support pollinators. They were told that a 10 x 10 foot raised bed filled with pollinator plants would attract many pollinators. The idea was so appealing that many people planted pollinator beds. The result was acres of pollinator plants – and many pollinators.
It is easy to find lists of plants that will provide nectar and pollen over a long season. You may already have bee plants in your garden. Some of my favorite bee perennials include: wild columbine, foam flower, butterfly weed, asters, turtlehead, Joe Pye weed, lupines, coneflower, liatris, bee balm, and black eyed Susans. Annuals that attract bees are zinnias, African (Tagetes) marigolds, cosmos, and sweet alyssum. Your herb garden with chives, rosemary, borage, thyme, and dill will attract bees.
Many people have room for a pollinator plant bed in their garden, but when I spoke to Susannah Lerman, on the University of Massachusetts faculty, she said you didn’t even need a flower bed to attract and sustain pollinators. She said you do it by doing nothing.
Lerman has been doing research on improving wildlife habitat in urban locations. A recent experiment was located in the Springfield area devastated by a tornado a few years ago. The landscape was wiped clean. She worked with 17 yards with lawns. Her project hired people to mow those lawns for the homeowners. Some lawns were mowed regularly once a week, others were mowed every two weeks, and the final lawns were mowed every three weeks.
Without planting anything new the lawns filled with blooming pollinator plants, dandelions, clover, violets, creeping Charlie, dwarf cinquefoil, speedwell, yellow hawkweed, yellow wood sorrel, annual fleabane, purple smartweed and more. Lerman identified 64 plant species spontaneously growing in those 17 yards. None of those yards used herbicides which is an important aspect of the experiment.
Lerman’s group also identified 111 bee species visiting those lawns. She now knows there are 300 or so native bees in Massachusetts.
When looking at mowing results Lerman said that a week between mowings appeared to be unnecessary. Those householders did not think it was necessary. The lawns mowed every two weeks had noticeable flowering ‘weeds’ but everyone agreed they looked perfectly respectable. The lawns mowed every three weeks looked a little messy and one could imagine neighbors frowning. “Mowing every two weeks was the sweet spot,” Lerman said. “Mowing every two weeks gave plants time to flower, and to keep neighbors happy.”
She added that another way of keeping neighbors happy is by creating a ‘cues to care’ sign. I have seen such signs myself. The Xerces Society sells an explanatory Pollinator Garden sign for $25. But you can always make your own sign. People are apt to be more tolerant if they know that your lawn is blooming intentionally, not neglected and full of weeds.
To find out more about bees and plants mark your calendar for the Langstroth Bee Festival on Saturday, June 3, at the Second Congregational Church on Bank Row. This year, in honor of the church’s anniversary, special celebratory events are scheduled for the Bee Festival. Kim Flottam, editor in chief of Bee Culture Magazine and author of several books on beekeeping, will be the main speaker. There will be special activities for children. Former Governor Deval Patrick, who is a beekeeper, will also be awarding beautiful plaques created by potter Molly Cantor to several notable pollinator gardens in FranklinCounty.
Bewtween the Rows April 1, 2017