It was almost exactly a year ago that I wrote about the distressing lack of bees in my wildlife garden. We had wasps and flies and beetles and wee little nameless beasties, but the bees—native and non-native alike—had gone missing.
When I asked around, I found two camps—a few people who had a perfectly normal year and didn’t know what I was talking about, and some very unsettled people who also were missing their bees.
Various well-meaning sorts suggested that I plant native plants and stop using chemicals. This is fabulous advice, except for the bit where I didn’t use chemicals in the first place and the garden was around 60% native already. It wasn’t a case of a homeowner standing in a sea of Chem-lawn saying “Well, I just don’t know what’s wrong!” Other pollinators were swarming around the yard in droves. Dragonflies patrolled the skies. I found a stinging rose caterpillar on the serviceberry, and those suckers are sufficiently rare that an entomology student told me she’d be honored just to see one in the wild.
But no bees.
So I’m very pleased to report that this year, at least, we’re having a banner year for bees!
The native bumblebees are so numerous that the garden looks like it’s shivering in a very peculiar breeze, as they climb stems and pull flowers down under their weight. When I went to cut back the marvelous two-tone salvia “Hot Lips” and the catmint “Walker’s Low,” which were sprawling all over the walkway, I had to cut very carefully so as not to accidentally snip too close to a bee. I found a bee jamming itself into the orange trumpets of Agastache that I thought were for the hummingbirds. They swarm on the spiderwort, they climb in and out of the bells of the beardstongue, and they wallow inside the sundrops. Most are bumblebees, but a few big masons are out as well. They don’t bother with all that climb-into-the-flower silliness, preferring to nip a hole at the base of the flower and go directly inside.
It’s not just flowers, either. There is a stretch of pathway that becomes a mud flat in spring, and it is covered in bees. Our neighbors (on the other side of the trees!) took up beekeeping last summer, and their honeybees crawl all over the mud flat and the gravel edging the frog-pond, licking up minerals and picking up droplets of water to take back to the hive. (We were very relieved when we figured out where the honeybees were coming from—there was a bad stretch where we were afraid a hive had settled in the attic or something.) Being a responsible beekeeper, our neighbor puts out a great deal of water for them in summer, but he says that they ignore it. Apparently our mud is tastier. (Given that they come in and pollinate some of our vegetables that don’t much interest the native bees, I am perfectly happy with this arrangement. A rising tide lifts all pollinators, or something.)
As might be expected, the division of labor among bees mostly breaks down by nationality. The honeybees prefer plants of Eurasian origin like thyme, roses, and English peas. The native bees are fond of native plants, like beardstongue and giant blue hyssop. Party lines are crossed on the catmint (which everybody loves with a desperate passion) white clover (always a favorite) and oddly enough, the Heuchera, which is a native plant that honeybees and smaller native bumblebees think is rather pleasant, if not desperately exciting.
Both teams have been ceding the native Eupatorium coelestinum to the solitary wasps, who are quite pleased with this arrangement. The Texas onion and New Jersey tea are the domain of teeny tiny little flies, and my bees are not terribly interested in either.
Nobody likes petunias. That’s fine. I grow petunias for me.
Individual preferences aside, there are bees everywhere this year, and believe me, I could not be more relieved. A garden without bees is like…err…a thing. Without another thing. That is vital to the first thing.
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