September is National Honey Month, which can be both delicious and beautiful! Honey pairs just as well with artisanal breads as with decadent desserts. It can play a supporting role at outdoor Sunday brunches and autumn weddings. And just like great landscaping, it’s great for all seasons.
In honor of honey and the invaluable pollinators that bring it to us, we’re talking bees today – how to attract them, protect them, and enjoy the fruits of their labors right in your own back yard.
Know Your Bees
Did you know that there are over 20,000 species of bees in the world? Of that number, about 4,000 are native to the United States, and about 300 live right here in New Jersey.
While that may not seem like a lot compared to the whole, this relatively small population of bees plays a vital role in the pollination of food crops from tomatoes and watermelon to peaches and apples. It is also the reason that our gardens bloom in colorful hues of pink and blue, yellow and red.
At any given time, you may see bumble bees and carpenter bees, leaf-cutter bees and digger bees. Some sting, and others cannot. They may live in the ground in abandoned animal holes or tree root cavities, in holes in walls from wood to brick, in plant stems, compost heaps, chimneys and of course in beehives.
Each of them plays a key role in pollinating the plants that we love and rely on, but only the Eastern European honeybee actually produces enough honey to make harvesting worthwhile.
Regardless of the type of bee or its honey-producing capabilities, they are all an indispensable link in the chain that keeps our natural world alive, thriving, and beautiful.
Many of our food crops and flowering plants would all but cease to exist without these tiny workers. That makes it vitally important to understand and protect them.
From Bee To Honey
Bees collect nectar from flowers, typically traveling within a mile of their hive – but they can travel as many as five! When they find a good source, they extract nectar with their straw-like mouth and return with it to their hive, where they turn it into honey.
Honey is a bee’s food source, especially during cold months when foraging is diminished or unavailable. But don’t worry – they typically have more honey than the colony can consume, so sharing their feast responsibly won’t hurt them.
As bees travel from flower to flower, they also collect pollen on their legs. Each time they visit another flower, a little bit of that pollen gets left behind, pollinating the flower and quite literally helping your garden grow.
You may be most familiar with clover or wildflower honey, but honey is produced from myriad flowering plants, trees, fruits, and vegetables – from the molasses-like avocado honey, to deep amber pumpkin honey, rich radish honey, mild orange blossom honey, and more than we can list here! They each have their own color tone, consistency and flavor, all thanks to the blooms that bee visit each day.
Save The Bees, Save The World
There’s a dark side to honey, too. It is one of the top three most counterfeit foods in the world, often cut with corn syrup, brown rice syrup and other sweeteners.
Don’t expect to see that on a label, either. Even honeys labeled “pure” and “unfiltered” can be adulterated.
There are also plenty of unethical beekeepers, who put convenience, simplicity, and profit before the protection and preservation of the creatures so responsible for our enjoyment and survival.
Without our buzzy little friends, we’d lose many of the foods we take for granted. Almonds would disappear, along with many berries, apples, onions and more. Coffee would become rare and expensive, as would chocolate.
That’s not to mention the numerous beautiful flowers and plants that rely on bee pollination to reproduce. Our yards would be severely diminished were it not for bees.
The lesson? Buy your honey from a producer that you can trust. That usually means paying more for the real thing, but you’ll be reassured that the bees are being treated with care and allowed to thrive naturally in native, healthy environments.
Planting A Bee Garden
Bees do plenty to help us, from keeping us fed to keeping our landscapes beautiful. And you can help them by planting a variety of bee-friendly native plants.
Bees tend to be “picky eaters” because they have evolved along with certain plants. The plants provide the right kind of nutrition and the bees help the plants reproduce. It’s the perfect symbiotic relationship, with each benefitting from the other.
But not all flowers provide the right kind of nutrition. Some flowers with tighter shapes make it impossible for bees to crawl in and extract the nectar. If you think about it, there is a very good reason that “weeds” like dandelion and clover proliferate. They are the ideal food source for bees, unlike many of our prized exotics.
If you want a truly healthy and naturally balanced landscape, look for native plants that have evolved right along with bees and other pollinators like hummingbirds, bats and butterflies. As a bonus, native landscapes are low-maintenance, requiring very little input from you and resulting in some of the most gorgeous displays you could hope to see.
As you plan your honeybee garden, here’s an important tip to consider: bees are red colorblind! In fact, bees only truly see blue and green. But bees have an advantage that we don’t – they can see ultraviolet light. That means that bees can see the ultraviolet patterns that exist on petals, which we cannot. It’s a combination of blue, green, and these ultraviolet colors that attracts them to a known food source.
Since red appears black to bees, you may wonder how these plants get pollinated at all – or perhaps you’ve noticed a bee on one of your red dahlias or zinnias and wonder why the bee is there.
The answer is that red flowers typically are not pollinated by bees, but by other pollinators. But remember what we said about ultraviolet light? Some red flowers do have ultraviolet patterns that bees are attracted to.
So if you’re wondering what blooms are best to invite honeybees to spend some time in your garden, your best bet is to choose flowers in the blue-green spectrum, including yellows, pinks and purples.
Some popular honeybee choices include Echinacea, a long flowering perennial that graces gardens from summer through autumn in bold shades of pink and purple; Hellebore which comes in a rich array of purples, pinks, yellows, greens and blues, perfect for a late-winter garden; Sedum, a gloriously exuberant autumn flower in a fireworks array of color; and Witch Hazel, one of the most unique blooming shrubs with springtime flowers ranging in color from yellow to orange.
They trick is to plant a four-season garden so you’ll always have plenty of blooms for your favorite pollinators, from the earliest days of spring to the latest days of winter. Bees and humans alike can enjoy a landscape that is seasonal and rich in diversity, color, and texture.
In addition to food sources, be sure to provide nesting materials, cover from predators, and protection from harsh weather.
Include some reclaimed wood or tall grasses in your landscape plan, or leave that old tree stump to double as natural garden art and a home for honeybees. Add a shallow birdbath, not just for your feathered friends, but as a water source for bees.
And plant native trees, flowers and shrubs. Even if they aren’t a food source for bees, native plants means you won’t have to rely on pesticides and chemicals that can harm bee populations.
Protecting bees and creating a bee-friendly landscape is more than just ecologically sound – it’s enjoyable and beautiful, too. As bees continue to hum along, pollinating plants and feeding their colonies, they continue to feed us, and keep our gardens blooming, too.
So take a moment this month to appreciate the vital role that bees play in our lives. And if your landscape isn’t as bee-friendly as it could be, contact us for a consultation and we’ll work with you to plan a space that suits your lifestyle, brings you four seasons of joy – and keeps our golden friends happy, too!