Quarantine activity: Plant a garden that helps support bees


Every quarantined morning these days I sit on my front steps and watch a bee have its breakfast at a crocus or azalea, a tranquil reminder that while disruptions continue to the world of man, nature moves placidly along.

With a little help from her friends.

I planted a garden for pollinators a few years ago, something that’s really easy to start, easy to maintain, nice to look at, and effective – common, hardy plants bring bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds during all but the winter months.

It’s a good project for Earth Day and can be done safely, as most plants can be ordered online and delivered, or picked up curbside from local garden centers.

We gathered tips from educator Constance Schmotzer from the Penn State agricultural extension, who is an expert in pollinator gardens. And the gardens are needed now more than ever, she said, because bees are struggling to adapt to a decline in their habitat. Schmotzer said the best thing you can do to help the struggling bee population is to give them food (found in nectar-rich plants). It helps build a healthy bee population that can better withstand the impact of pesticides, disease, and parasites.

Here’s how you can help the bees:

The optimum food for bees, she said, can be found in plants they’ve adapted to interface with over thousands of years. Native plants (such as phlox, coneflower, black eyed Susans, and aster) grow vigorously, require almost no watering once established, and thrive in almost any kind of soil.

Look for heirloom varieties, and stay away from hybrids, which may produce less pollen and nectar. How do you find what’s native? Not-for-profit online resources such as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center can help you find good options.

You can also buy plants online from dealers that specialize in native plants, and deliver.

Schmotzer recommends planting them relatively close together leaving little room between mature growth, so you don’t need to use pesticides or mulch. She said insects prefer the natural mulch of leaves, which also provide a habitat for pollinators in different stages of life.

Bees like to gorge on a particular kind of blossom when foraging. So plant a “drift” of similar plants, giving the bees an incentive to linger. One coneflower might not interest a busy bee. But three plants grouped together may represent an irresistible feast.

Design your garden so that it includes plants that bloom in spring, summer and fall, so pollinators have a source of food nearly year-round. In late March and early April, for instance, Virginia Bluebells will give bees somewhere to go in early spring. And they can be planted in shady spots, since they bloom before leaves form on trees.

You can build a garden that qualifies as a PSU certified pollinator garden. The main qualification? That your plot includes at least 75% native plants. You can find the application from the agricultural extension on the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences website. The site also has really good information about Pa. native plants by season.

You can still plant some plants that you love, even if they aren’t native to the region. Other bee-friendly options include evergreen azalea or Japanese Andromeda, which blooms in March with cascading bunches of bell shaped flowers that attract bees in droves.

Some of the best plants for bees will also feed you. The giant hyssop (anise) in my front yard is by far the most effective at attracting pollinators across the board. It blooms early, copiously, and stays around long enough for the monarchs. Mint, oregano, and basil, if you let them flower, and great at attracting bees, and also easy to grow in pots or window boxes for an herb garden. Clustered mountain mint, Schmotzer said, is a variety that’s easy to grow and also popular with bees.

Your garden isn’t really finished until you provide a little nook for water, something like a bird bath. Bees also need to hydrate. Also, when your garden has run its course for the year, don’t be in a hurry to cut back old growth. Leave as much of it as you can. Lots of wild bees use the stalks of spent plants for a winter home.

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