We're all itching to get out into our flower beds and gardens and clean them up for the summer. My parents cleaned our gardens to the ground every spring - I'm convinced that's why they had 5 kids - a larger labor force. It looked so nice and clean. But, did you know, a thorough cleaning is not only unnecessary, it threatens the nesting habitat of our local, ground nesting and cavity nesting bumble bees and and other native pollinators.
Why should we be concerned about our native bees? First of all, they are some of the earliest pollinators to emerge in spring, making them vital to the pollination of fruit trees such as cherries, plums, and apples, as well as other flowering trees, shrubs, and spring ephemerals. Certain native wasps are beneficial predators, essential for keeping other less-desirable insect populations under control. Most obvious - we need our pollinators to pollinate plants! Without their tireless work, many of our plants, including our medicinal favorites, would become endangered. I could go on and on - but the Minnesota DNR says it much better than I can!
Endangered? Yes indeed. Of the 23 species of bumble bees in Minnesota, seven species are thought to be in serious decline, according to the University of Minnesota Bee Lab, including the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis), our "state bee" since 2019. Rusty has gotten a lot of press as they were the first bees to be given protection by being added to the endangered list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2017. Keep in mind there are many other declining beneficial insect populations that need our help, too. There are probably close to 400 species of bees in our state, 98% of which are solitary bees whose nesting sites are also diminishing. Click here for a great chart of bee species in MN. Impressive, huh!
So, what can we - what can you - do to help out our bees and other pollinators?
Provide suitable nesting habitat:
- The majority of native bees are ground nesters, so leave some ground partially exposed, perhaps covered with leaf clutter- but avoid bark mulch as bees have difficulty getting through it.
- You've maybe seen "bee houses" for sale in stores? While being attractive, they are not as effective as simply leaving 8-24 inches of stems up in your gardens. Once again, the University of Minnesota has provided a great pamphlet with more information about this.
- Create a brush pile to provide perfect habitat for both ground nesters and cavity nesters.
- Leave downed trees to provide yet another great source of habitat as birds go after insects in the dead wood and our bees build nests in those spaces.
Plant a variety of flowers, as bees get all their nutrition from flowers:
- Lean toward planting native plants, providing bloom from early spring through fall.
- Native plants require less care than non-natives and are preferred by our native pollinators.
- Grow plants with pithy or hollow stems, such as Joe Pye weed, boneset, echinacea, monarda, raspberries (yum) and many, many others. I will have lots of plants available to share this spring - check out the list I've come up with so far.
Avoid spraying pesticides and herbicides
(I don't think I need to go into this one. They kill insects. Bees are insects)
Now, I am not advocating alienating your neighbors by leaving excessive brush and dead trees laying around in your front yard! If you take any of my "how to grow medicinal plants" classes, you will hear me repeat often - "Do not alienate your neighbors" and "Do not be THAT neighbor". There are easy ways to keep your public areas looking very attractive while still being pollinator friendly by planting lovely blooming plants and leaving a few dead stems standing, soon to be hidden by new growth. Wood piles and dead trees are likely best kept in a back yard. Just sayin'.
As with all my posts, if you have any questions or suggestions, please let me know. I think this is one of the most crucial posts I've written. (Forgive me for all the links I put in this post - but I didn't think I needed to rewrite what others have said so well). I would love to add your ideas and input.
Additional idea from others:
Check out this brush fence idea