Garfield County Cooperative Extension

Bees Our Most Important Pollinators

Rick Nelson Extension Educator, Ag/4-H

Bees Our Most Important Pollinators

It has been estimated that bees pollinate around 70% of the world's plants. Not only many of the fruit and vegetable crops that we eat, but also the wild plants in nature depend on pollination to produce seeds and reproduce themselves. Since plants are in large part, the foundation of the food chain upon which many animals depend, bees have an essential role in maintaining life. Understandably the health of bee populations is a direct reflection of the health of our ecosystems.

The Importance of the Bee

While the domesticated honeybee is the best-known bee, there are an estimated 4,000 additional species of native North American bees. But bee populations are in decline, primarily because of the loss of wild habitats and the use of a new generation of insecticides.

So it's essential that through collective gardening efforts, gardeners can take on the essential mission of protecting their populations through the creation of beautiful and diverse gardens and landscapes and promotion of bee friendly gardening techniques.

Bees and flowers are dependent on each other. Bees visit the flowers to feed on sugar-rich nectar and gather protein-rich pollen to feed their young. In return, bees move pollen from flower to flower which creates seeds and allows the plants to complete their reproductive life cycle.

Maintaining a Bee Friendly Garden

Bees need three things to create a habitat where they can live: flowers, nesting sites and water.

Nesting Sites:

Unlike the social honey bee that lives in communal hives, most native bee species are solitary. They nest in the ground, in rock embankments and dry-stacked rock walls as well as in hollow plant stems, under small piles of brush and holes in trees. Make sure that your landscape has mulch free bare ground where bees can dig their burrows. Don't use weed barrier as this prevents a bee's access to the ground below.

Water:

Bird baths are commonly used by bees. Place a stone in the water where bees can walk to the water's edge and drink. Or create a muddy area by placing a drip emitter in a depression in the soil. (This will also attract butterflies.)

Flowers:

Plant a diverse selection of nectar and pollen-rich flowering plants that bloom throughout the growing season. A succession of flowers from early spring to late fall supports robust bee populations. Here are some general guidelines for selecting flowering plants for your bee-friendly garden:

·         Bees prefer blue, purple, and yellow flowers that have a sweet fragrance, but will also visit other colored flowers.

·         Use double flowers such as common garden mums sparingly. Flowers that have no center "eye" are unusable for bees and other insect pollinators.

·         Plant in groups of the same flower species to maximize nectar and pollen availability while minimizing the travel distance needed to gather it.

·         When planting shrubs and trees with separate male and female plants (dioecious species), be sure to plant more male plants as they are essential sources of protein-rich pollen as well as nectar.

·         Plant as many native species as possible. Native bees will feed on both native and old world plants, but often prefer native species.

·         On the other hand, honeybees (which are actually old world insects, not native to the Americas) feed on both native and old world plants.

·         Bumblebees especially like tubular flowers with wide openings and hooded flowers (like Lupine and other legumes) on which to feed.

Note about Bumblebees

Bumblebees are remarkable pollinators that will out pollinate the common honey bee. Why? Because they can fly in colder temperatures, working earlier in the spring and later into the fall as well as earlier in the morning and later in the evening. They are faster workers than honeybees often visiting twice as many flowers in the same time period. And they can carry much more pollen in the pollen collecting hairs on their back legs.

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