Garden with Grace

"I hope that while so many people are out smelling the flowers, someone is taking the time to plant some." ~H.Rappaport


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2020 Started with the Birds and Ends with the Bees

Each gardening season, I ‘discover’ something new – and usually very exciting (at least to me!) – about our backyard garden habitat. Over the past few years, I’ve spent time getting to really know ‘my’ Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, Cedar Waxwings, and American Gold Finches. Initially, 2020 appeared to be on track to be the year of ‘my Bluebirds‘.

My Eastern Bluebird pair watching over their nesting box in early 2020 to bring food to their tiny nestlings.

While the Bluebirds were such a gift of hope this past spring – they started a new family of at least three little ones that fledged in late June – the reality of the 2020 garden turned out to be all about ‘my bees’. While not necessarily a new discovery this year, the sheer number and variety of ‘bees’ in the garden has been interesting, and on some days, even a bit exciting. Perhaps so much extra time in the garden in 2020 just provided the opportunity to become more observant, appreciative, and aware of the creatures keeping me company outside. Even as late as Christmas Day this year – when we had unusual warmth for a few days – I saw and heard bees in my New Hampshire garden — they were especially interested in the holly and the faded enkianthus tree.

Let’s get this out of the way before I continue. I am not an ‘apiarist’ aka: bee expert. I became fascinated with bees after reading Sue Monk Kidd’s ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ almost 20 years ago. That book inspired me to learn more about beekeeping, but my career in the tech industry was a higher priority back then…and I knew I just couldn’t make a living by selling honey in New Hampshire for a few months a year.

Over the years since, I’ve chatted with beekeepers and while I continue to be fascinated by these beautiful and important creatures that are detrimental to our own survival, I’ve still not pursued hive-tending or honey-gathering. Instead I’ve targeted my focus on ensuring a better environment for the bees that reside in our garden. It’s a focus that both my mom and I have become committed to in our shared garden, especially over the past decade. It’s one small way to have a personal and positive impact to address climate change.

I have friends and neighbors who are afraid of bees and when they complain to me about them, I always think about this passage from ‘The Secret Life of Bees’. It still stands out in my mind, two decades after first reading it.

I hadn’t been out to the hives before, so to start off she gave me a lesson in what she called ‘bee yard etiquette’. She reminded me that the world was really one bee yard, and the same rules work fine in both places. Don’t be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you. Still, don’t be an idiot; wear long sleeves and pants. Don’t swat. Don’t even think about swatting. If you feel angry, whistle. Anger agitates while whistling melts a bee’s temper. Act like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. Above all, send the bees love. Every little thing wants to be loved.”

The Secret Life of Bees

The last two sentences from that passage are key. Specifically, “Send the bees love.” I whisper to the bees while I garden (and I no longer care what my neighbors think if they hear me!) Especially in mid to late summer, I thank the bees for their hard work to keep my garden blooming all season. I also thank them for not stinging me!

Enjoying the Autumn Joy Sedum in September. My mobile phone camera captured detail that’s hard to see with the naked eye.

I believe the bees feel my love when I check on their well-being. On some August mornings when they are motionless, especially in my zinnias, I offer a very gentle nudge and soft hello (yes, I pat the bees like I would cat or a dog!) Every single time, they move just a bit, as if to ask me for just a little more time to rest. They certainly deserve it, so I quietly walk away and wish them a good day (with a sense of relief after seeing life). The bee in this zinnia seemed to actually roll over upon being roused when I gave it a little pat. It was just fine. Perhaps only a little overworked from a busy morning of pollinating!

A little nap on an August zinnia.

The only other times I will touch bees is when they get swept into the deep end of our many birdbaths found throughout the garden. Like all living things, bees need water. In my garden, bees can often be found around the perimeter of the birdbaths, especially after they’ve been refreshed with clean water each morning. This summer, I pulled more bees (honeybees and bumblebees) and their cousins (yellow jackets and wasps) out of their giant watering holes when I’ve seen them struggle to escape. I gently scoop them up with my hands (or a small stick for yellow jackets) and place them on the rocks or soft ground in nearby shade to dry off. Every single time, they’ve flown away a few minutes after regaining their composure. (And of course, the wasps and yellow jackets deserve a little love and to be saved, too.)

An important similarity among all of these creatures is they provide an important service to benefit our environment — they are pollinators. They do so much more than gift us with sweet honey. Without pollination, our backyard gardens wouldn’t produce tomatoes, squash, or even the beautiful berries on our shrubs, like holly. And, did you know one third of all agricultural output in the United States depends on pollinators? The produce department at your local market would be empty if it were not for bees.

While we may read about bees pollinating flowers, we don’t often get the chance to see this process up close. Again, the extra time in my garden afforded me the opportunity in 2020 to capture why we need to better care for our bees — the amount of pollen they carry from flower to flower is nothing short of amazing. Just flying with such a heavy load looks painfully difficult when you get a look up close. These bees, fully enthralled in the pollination process of the Rudbeckia and Rose of Sharon made me think of Bess, from Porgy & Bess, and the reference to ‘Happy Dust’ in the play. (I took all of these photos with my mobile phone camera – so please ask permission before you use them for your own posts.)

So, how can you take better care of bees to ensure we all have the pollinators needed to keep our world alive? Again, I’m not an apiarist, but I do have five suggestions based on the success of expanding the bee and overall pollinator population in our own New Hampshire garden. These suggestions are ideal for any where you may garden and want to better support your own pollinators.

  1. Ditch the insecticides! If you kill the bees (aka: insects), you’re basically killing your overall environment. This was especially realized as we reduced the footprint of lawn in our garden over the past decade. Over the years, instead of replacing lawn that just couldn’t thrive without fertilizer, herbicide, and insecticide products, we filled in ‘bald’ spaces of lawn with white clover. While clover does well, and the cottontail rabbits love it, so instead of planting more, we’ve been adding thyme – the creeping perennial variety to create a beautiful lush lawn. It has a wonderful fragrance and colorful flowers. And best of all, the bees, as well as the birds absolutely love it!
  2. Learn to love your spring dandelions. When you stop using herbicides, you’ll find more dandelions in your spring garden. This is perfect to bring in the bees. It’s the first flower of the spring season and much needed for the nutrition of bees. I have a friend who is an avid gardener, too. Until this past year, Steve has had a natural tendency to pull up the new dandelions. For a few years, when he’d visit our garden, the impulse continued, until I shared that we intentionally keep these bright yellow flowers for the bees. It was a big ‘ah-ha!’ to Steve and now, he points out to me that he also has learned to love the dandelions — because like me, he loves the bees.
  3. Plant native perennials. Get to know your garden zone and find native perennials to plant. A Google search of native perennials and your location will give you a whole list of options. And it’s ok to change things up over time. Changing our lawn from grass to sod and back to grass, then to clover and now thyme has taken almost a decade. We still filled in areas this past autumn and I can’t wait to see how it all takes in for the 2021 gardening season.
  4. Plant colorful annuals. While our garden is mostly perennials, my favorite summer annual flowers are zinnias. They are often overlooked and I don’t understand why. They are bright and colorful. They grow in a variety sizes and thrive in all types of garden conditions but especially LOVE full sun. And they attract the most beautiful pollinators – including bees and butterflies. I’ll never not have zinnias in my garden now. In fact, I save the seed heads from my favorite flowers each autumn to plant year after year. It you’re not a gardener, like I’m not a bee expert, you will surprise yourself with zinnias and become hooked. (I promise!) Check out Renee’s Garden Seeds to get started. I absolutely love their annual seeds – in addition to zinnias, they have special seed mixes especially to attract bees. I tried the Beekeepers Mix and it’s beautiful!
  5. Make your garden hospitable to bees! Once you cover items 1-4, be sure to add water features to your garden. Even a birdbath helps. There are also ways to set up watering stations for bees, with shallow areas of water and rocks. Also, at the end of the gardening season, save some of your leaf pickup and pruning until spring. Give the bees a place to take cover in the winter. Another option is to check with local beekeepers in your area. If your garden is hospitable for bees, you may even be able to ‘rent’ a hive for your garden that is tended to by a professional. (This is something I’ve been thinking about for a few years now.)

I hope you’re a little more inspired now to believe in your bees as we look ahead to 2021. What’s not to love? They keep our gardens, our souls, and even our world alive. It’s time for all of us to make sure we give them a chance — which ultimately gives all of us a chance. Enjoy these additional photos of bees from my 2020 garden.

“The hum of bees is the voice of the garden.”

~Elizabeth Lawrence