As we think about planting our gardens this spring, let us not forget to make a special effort to grow some flowering plants, especially for honeybees. These insects pollinate about 80 percent of the fruits, vegetables, and seed crops in America. You can thank the honeybee for a third of the food you eat every day.
Honeybees are essential to food production, but populations are almost nonexistent in the wild, and honeybees reared in apiaries are suffering a severe population decline. Colony collapse disorder is sweeping the planet, and honeybees are experiencing an alarming drop-off. A 2010-11 honeybee survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Apiary Inspectors of America reported a 38.4-percent winter honeybee loss. The average yearly loss of honeybees has been about 30 percent, and the decline is steady.
We now have the fewest honeybees since 1950. A lot of honeybees are missing! They are missing and are not found dead — they are simply vanishing. Can the honeybee withstand this severe annual disappearance? This indicator species may be trying to tell us something. Something is not quite right in the world of the honeybee.
Many things are not quite right, and there are ways to help. We can propagate the plants that honeybees love and need to survive. Honeybees will travel up to six miles from their hives on foraging trips. They look for a few things on these trips. Like almost all living creatures, honeybees need fresh water to survive. They drink water and store it in their hives for later use. You can help honeybees by placing a birdbath or shallow container with some rocks or seashells in the bottom so honeybees can rest on them while they have a drink. If you see honeybees in your pool filter, this means they are using your chlorinated pool water as their water source. It would be better to provide a supply of fresh water instead.
The main source of energy for honeybees is nectar, a liquefied natural sugar. Honeybees gather nectar from flowers and make it into honey. Each worker bee makes about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her entire lifetime, which is only about six weeks. Honeybees will travel 55,000 miles and visit almost two million flowers to make just one pound of honey.
Honeybees also collect pollen, a powdery substance that is their sole source of protein. They feed their young honey and pollen and store it for the winter when food is scarce. They, like us, require a variety of food sources (flowers) to thrive, and they need a steady supply all season long. The brood rearing season is usually between April and September, and honeybees need a continual source of nectar and pollen throughout this time to help expand their hives. A healthy hive can have upward of 50,000 bees in the summer, and they all need to eat.
Try to combine annual and perennial flowers, herbs and vegetables, and bushes and trees that bloom at different times in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Check the species carefully to make sure the plants you choose are not invasive. Although honeybees are attracted to blue, purple, violet, white, and yellow flowers, it is best to choose an assortment of colors. Use native plants if you can — just be sure to plant a variety of species.
Besides providing honeybees with food and water, a very important thing you can do for them is to stop using pesticides. Pesticides are poison and do not discriminate; they kill the good bugs and the bad ones. Two newfangled systemic synthetic neonicotinoids, clothianidin and imidacloprid, are highly toxic to bees. Study after study is confirming this, yet these poisons are still widely used. In addition, imidacloprid is now found in our drinking water, and groups across Long Island are calling for its ban. There are pest-control alternatives we should use to help the honeybees and the planet.
If you cannot spend a lot of time or money, you can keep the flowering plants that are already in your yard. Many plants commonly considered weeds are great for honeybees. Dandelion, clover, goldenrod, and purple vetch are honeybee favorites. Purple vetch is good because it naturally adds nitrogen to the soil and helps plants to grow. Dandelion is a very important early spring wildflower as well. Also, think about planting clover instead of grass. Like purple vetch, it provides a natural source of nitrogen to your soil, and the honeybees love it.
A cost-effective, simple way to help honeybees is to allow your lawn to go a little wild and mow after the weeds have finished blooming. You can also sprinkle some wildflower seeds on a sunny part of your lawn and wait for the pretty blossoms and honeybees to arrive.
In early spring, plant buttercups, crocuses, daffodils, deadnettle, and hyacinth so the honeybees will have something to eat when they start foraging. The dogwood tree produces large, early blossoms. Quince, spicebush, and viburnum are bushes that flower in the early spring, too. Impatiens, white deadnettle, and some heather will flower from early spring well into the fall and are great choices.
From late spring through summer, many fruit trees and berries flower. In addition to the pollen and nectar provided by the flowers, honeybees are attracted to the juice of soft-skinned berries. Butterfly-silkweed, cotoneaster, forget-me-nots, and Oriental poppies also bloom from late spring through summer.
In early summer, bearded iris, dahlias, and tickseed are in bloom. Sweet pepperbush and inkberry flower through summer and easily attract honeybees. There is a nectar gap during the summer, and a limited amount of food is available for honeybees. Bee balm, black-eyed Susan, cotton lavender, coneflower, and foxglove are summertime honeybee favorites.
Honeybees need food in the winter, and plants that flower late in the fall give them one last chance to gather food for the cold winter months. Asters, autumn-flowering crocus and clematis, sedum, and Shasta daisies provide a variety of food choices for honeybees in the fall.
Plant lots of herbs, fruits, and vegetables as they bloom throughout the planting season and the honeybees will enjoy them as much as you will. Many herbs are great for honeybees. Lavender and coriander are especially useful, as their scented oils may also deter the varroa mite — a parasite that harms honeybees.
Your herbs and vegetables will benefit from honeybees, and the honeybees will thank you for them.
Deborah Klughers is a Springs resident and mother of four. She is new to beekeeping and is a newly elected East Hampton Town Trustee. She has a degree in environmental studies and will complete her master’s degree in marine conservation and policy next month.