Thursday, January 13, 2005

Native Bee Garden Notes, San Francisco Bay Area

Native bees are mostly in mind when I think of bee-friendly gardens, rather than honeybees, which are not native, though marvelous for their honey, beeswax and other benefits. Honeybees are the “cattle” among the insects – tended by man, providing him benefits, sometimes at the expense of other creatures. When it comes to actually effecting pollination, many of our native bees are far superior to honeybees. Most native bees rarely or never sting. Plantings that serve native bees generally also serve honeybees, of course. Honeybees are not so common anymore because of various parasites and diseases that have come along in recent years, and fewer people are keeping them.

For the bones of a bee-friendly garden I like hollyleaf cherry, toyon and coffeeberry because they're good bee plants and easy to grow and easy to use in the landscape and provide good fruits for the birds. Coast buckwheat, California buckwheat and coyote mint are among my favorites for attracting native bees and other insects, typically attended by many insects much of the day. I like bigleaf maple because it is a beautiful tree whose flowers, yellow and fragrant, attract bumblebees and others early in the year. I love bumblebees!

I've particularly noted that some species and cultivars of plant genera recommended for attracting bees have little or no value, while others are tops. Some species of Eriogonum, Ceanothus, etc. attract many more insects than others do. I would love to pull together more specific information! The particular spectra of bee species present in a given situation matters as well. In this as in every other respect, every garden is different.

For each type of plant, nectar typically flows at a certain time of the day or night and insects visit right after the pulse of nectar flow. Nectars vary considerably in the concentration and type of sugars and other nutrients they contain. Some plant species produce plenty of pollen, which may be key to their ability to attract insects all day long – bees collect pollen, as well as nectar, to feed their brood. It is amazing how much simple knowledge we don't have, how much there is to learn! A "bee garden" aids observation. Garden plantings may conveniently be observed at all times of the day and on the best days, such as the warmer days of winter and spring.

A mass of soaproot draws many insects as the flowers open in late afternoon; the large heavy native bees that pollinate wild cucumber are only active somewhat before dawn!

Tanysleaf phacelia, sometimes called beefood, is the best of the commonly cultivated true annuals for attracting insects. It brings bumblebees and other insects readily and all day long. It is perhaps the easiest native annual wildflower to grow. It gets large, and the husky seedlings produced by its fairly large seeds are more competitive with weeds than any other I've seen. They are even somewhat resistant to snails, which eat so many wildflowers. If allowed to it sets seed and returns year after year. Tansyleaf phacelia also grows well in clayish soils.

California poppies draw bumblebees, but only if you have enough of them. Merely a few poppies may attract few or no insects. Having a critical mass makes the difference!

With the smaller species of plants, it's been impressed upon me that just one plant or a few simply will not be as powerful an insect magnet as several to very many individuals. For smaller types of plants to effectively draw insects, let each species be massed somewhere in the composition in at least a 16 square foot grouping, with 20 or more square feet better as a minimum en masse area. Several California buckwheats massed or in fairly close proximity are effective, as in Arvind Kumar’s San Jose garden. But even trees or large shrubs attract more insects if other individuals of the same species are adjacent or in easy flying distance. If you want conspicuous insect traffic, a maximum of five species should comprise the bulk of the composition of seed mixes or planting plans for typical small beds of less than a few hundred square feet. Using more individuals of fewer species with significant value generates more insect traffic.

Many "developed" areas boast few plants producing much nectar or pollen and thus are truly desolate for pollinators! Many of the "color spot" plants developed for suburbia produce no nectar, no pollen, no fruits and no seeds -- nothing to sustain pollinating insects, almost nothing for any wildlife.

A succession of bloom sustains bee populations -- bees coming for the one flower may well keep coming for the next, but if there is a gap in the succession of bloom it may be harder to keep them around. Flowers the year around makes for pleasing pollinators as well as people.

I don't get out to observe natural habitats or gardens as much as I'd like, or do garden experiments nearly as much as I'd like. I'd love to investigate native clovers to understand the relative insect values of the various species that are available wholesale from Pacific Coast Seed Company. Arroyo willow provides plenty of nectar and pollen very early in the year – and later its foliage is food for caterpillars of such butterflies as the western tiger swallowtail, the Lorquin’s admiral and the mourning cloak.

Do you have the Pollinator Conservation Handbook by the Xerces Society? “A Guide to Understanding, Protecting, And Providing Habitat for Native Pollinator Insects.” Find it among my Recommended Books.

Paul Heiple of the Santa Clara Valley Chapter of the California Native Plant Society loves native bees. A cleverly designed wooden “bee block” affixed to his Portola Valley home is delightfully attended by a variety of native bees nesting in it. Bee blocks are available commercially or may be easily constructed in a home workshop.

Check my California Wildlife Gardening Links to access more information about bee friendly gardens.

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