Between the Rows: ‘Plant a flower, feed a bee’

  • Sunflowers at Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge.

  • Pat Leuchtman

For The Recorder
Published: 6/9/2017 11:27:08 AM

The Bee Fest, organized by the Second Congregational Church and the Franklin County Bee Keepers Association last week, included talks by bee experts Lynn Adler and Susannah Lerman, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, as well as Kim Flottum, the editor of Bee Culture Magazine. All of them gave us information about problems facing pollinators and how we can help.

Lerman told us about her research, which showed that mowing a non-herbicide-pesticide and un-fertilized lawns every two weeks generated 64 varieties of pollinator plants — some would call weeds — and 111 pollinators, including honeybees and many native bees. Her research was unanimously acclaimed by all those who have lawns to mow.

Most of us have heard about Colony Collapse Disorder which causes a whole hive to die, but the cause has been unclear. Adler has been doing research on a bee’s digestive gut. It turns out that bees have some skill in diagnosing some of their ailments and know how to medicate themselves.

She knew that many plants have been used medicinally over the centuries. She thought that those biological compounds, called secondary metabolites, might be an important medicine for bees. Her research showed that sunflower pollen and sunflower honey can both help bees suffering from Nosema ceranae, a pathogen that can kill bees in little more than a week. It has been suggested that this pathogen has been responsible for Colony Collapse Disorder. When bumblebees and honey bees have access to sunflowers, they tend to be much healthier.

Honeybees have an advantage over bumblebees in fighting this disease. Honeybees live in community. Their hive can live through many generations of bees. They store a good stock of honey and pollen to keep everyone fed and well. Adler said honeybees are able to diagnose disease and seem to keep a pharmacy, so whenever there is illness, they have the wherewithal to treat it.

Bumblebees do not over-winter together. After mating in the fall, the queen bumblebee bee eats as much as she can to build up fat that will carry her through her winter hibernation in the ground. When spring arrives, she leaves her home every day to feed on nectar and gather strength. At first, she does everything alone, gathering nectar and pollen, laying eggs and raising the first brood. After that, she will have the support of those first bees, while she devotes herself to egg laying.

I never considered sunflowers great pollinator plants. I usually think of the great mammoth sunflowers making seeds for snacks, but a browse though any catalog will list any number of sunflowers. They have different sizes and different colors, and some of them do not make pollen. Hybridizers have created sunflowers that do not make pollen, which looks messy when it falls on a tablecloth. If you want to plant sunflowers for bees, be sure to buy pollen- bearing varieties.

Flottum spoke about the loss of pollinator habitat — it has been decreasing over the years. He told us ways that habitat can be increased. One idea taking hold in the Midwest cornfields is planting a border of pollinator plants all around those fields. Corn does not need pollinators, but if there are pollinator plant borders, bees will come and the ecosystems will be healthier.

He also reported that two million bee hives are needed to pollinate almond orchards in California, but there is nothing else for the bees to eat. Almond farmers have learned the benefit of planting pollinator plants in and around their orchards. The trees are pollinated better when the bees have additional food sources.

The National Wildlife Federation created the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge to add plants that will support the decimated populations of Monarch butterflies. They plant milkweeds in public parks, civic gathering places and along highways.

Flottum talked about how easy it is to plant pollinator plants along the highways that would not need to be mowed. A town could save money, while being more beautiful, as well as being a supporter of birds and bees.

Flottum left us with a few words: “Plant a flower, feed a bee. Make the world a better place.”

Former Gov. Deval Patrick was there and told a few stories about his own beekeeping practice, but he was there to help honor those who are already feeding the bees and making the world a better place.

The Franklin County Beekeeper’s Association instituted the Bee Spaces Award this year, to be given to excellent pollinator gardens. The first annual Bee Spaces awards were presented to Erving Elementary School for its pollinator garden, Laughing Dog Farm in Gill, the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls and the University of Massachusetts for its two pollinator gardens.

If you have a garden supportive of pollinators, or want to add pollinator plants to your garden, you might win one of next year’s Bee Spaces awards. There are many books available at the library with lists of good pollinator plants, including “100 Plants to Feed the Bees,” published by the Xerces Society, or you can go online to many sites, including the New England Wildflower Society at: newenglandwild.org.

You can start collecting photos so you can apply to be a winner next spring. More information will be available soon.

Pat Leuchtman has written and gardened since 1980. She lives in Greenfield. Readers can leave comments at her Web site: www.commonweeder.com




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