Put A Bee in Your Bonnet

Native Wildflower Nutritious Bee Forage Needed!

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I’ve got a bee in my bonnet.  As this idiomatic expression is defined by the Cambridge on-line dictionary, it means to continue to talk about something you think is very important even when others do not. Ha! I can tell you are laughing! Oh, she finally realized how irritating she is constantly talking about vegetarian recipes, juice and salad! You’re thinking I’m going to lay off and leave you alone for awhile? Maybe start posting about how to make marshmallows or some other confection using high fructose corn syrup, or bring you a mouth-watering line-up of fried fair-food on a stick? No. I’m off food for the moment, and am now perseverating over bee forage gardening. I’ve just got to tell you about it because I think you can help.

So, in June the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) offered a program that will provide $8 million dollars as an incentive for farmers to set aside land that had been commercially grown, and instead, establish honeybee habitats. This money is designated for the five states where half, that’s right, HALF of the commercial US bee population resides in the summer months – you guessed it, Minnesota is one of them as well as Wisconsin, Michigan and the Dakotas. In February of this same year, the USDA designated $3 million dollars to support bee populations through conservation and environmental quality programs that involve setting aside 100,000 acres to grow native wild-flowers. I got wind of these programs through my dad sending me USDA links, and it got me thinking.

As a city slicker, I would not have likely noticed this news. As a foodie, I would have been a little curious, and perhaps developed a narcissistic worry over where my next plate might come from if the bee disappears, but now as a beekeeper myself, I see the need to act. I’m freakin’ out! Sometimes, environmental news seems so overwhelmingly sad – it is – but, in the case of the bee, I am hoping there is something quite simple and beautiful that we can all do. We can plant gardens! We can plant gardens full of bee-friendly flowers (without neonicotinoid-laden pesticides, of course) that will provide nutritious forage for our most important friends.

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The views at my farm are lovely, but after reading the news of late regarding bees, I see my property in a whole new light. Do you notice what’s missing? Sure there’s a bit of clover, a few flowers I planted, but in general, there’s a lot of open space that could become wildflower bee habitat. We do have a bit of meadow with wildflowers like milkweed, daisy and yarrow that provides forage for bees and butterflies, and I also planted a large circle of black sunflower that will look crazy-cool in  a couple of weeks. But, because the previous owners had animals, the burdock and thistle were thick and choking out nearly everything else. We decided to keep a large portion of the property mowed this year in order to cull those two particular species. As we have cleared the land, we have planted three varieties of clover as well as annual rye to give quick cover to the soil. But now I see that this is not enough.

Our Meadow with Milkweed

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So, I have been reading like crazy trying to figure out what flowers bees will like and what I can grow on the property. The USDA program suggests that the planting include a mix of annuals, perennials and sometimes native grasses. They also suggest planting in large swaths or patches at least 20 square feet. Below is a very large patch of Phacelia I found planted at a neighbors blueberry farm specifically placed for bumblebee forage. Apparently, it is the bumblebee who is the main pollinator for blueberries. I had never seen this annual before. It has a really beautiful blue to purple flower and when planted in mass it is quite stunning. The picture below shows Phacelia about two weeks after its prime. It also turns out that Phacelia can be used as a cover crop. Cover crops are used to add organic matter, aerate, protect soil from erosion or to provide or absorb specific nutrients. It turns out that Phacelia is good at absorbing extra nitrogen and calcium. That seems a good thing for a blueberry farmer who wants to keep lime levels low for the correct blueberry ph.

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I found this field of poppies at another farm near me, and these flowers were full of happy bees. In reading about bee-friendly flowers, I learned that bees go to poppies for their pollen to feed the babies rather than for nectar for honey. I also learned from visiting with the neighbor that her seed comes from the grocery – how convenient! The poppy seeds we buy for lemon poppy-seed muffins can also be grown for bee forage! So cool. I’ve not had much luck with poppies in my city gardens, but I haven’t given it much effort. Growing with Plants has great step-by-step instructions for planting poppies if you want to give it a try. They are so stunning in mass and even lovelier in a bouquet on the table!

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So, here’s what I propose to do. I bought a bunch of bee-friendly flower seeds from companies that would not have seeds exposed to neonicotinoids, and plan to plant in large circular swaths. I bought large quantities of Lupin, Echinacea, Cosmos, Chicory, Wallflower and Black-Eyed Susans in addition to a smattering of other bee-happy plants like Betony, Flax, Daisy, Wild Indigo, Hyssop and Aster. I’m excited to create a visually stunning landscape over the next couple years, and add to a friendlier bee habitat. In the city, our entire yard is perennial plantings, and plan to add a few more patches of Black-Eyed Susan, Poppies and LOTS of Monarda. It seems to me that no matter how much land we have, we will all enjoy the benefits of building for the bees. Join me won’t you, to put a bee in everyone’s bonnet!

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