There are a lot of practical and ecological reasons to turn your landscape into a way station and home for bees. In fact, the list of advantages is so compelling it may dramatically change how you see and use the space around your home.
Not only is a bee-friendly garden organic and sustainable, but a garden humming with bees will lead to a more bountiful harvest of larger and healthier fruits and vegetables. It will also attract other beneficial insects that will go after garden pests as well as provide habitat for butterflies, moths, bats, hummingbirds and other wildlife.
But on an even more global scale, bees provide a critical link in the world’s food chain by facilitating the fertilization of more than 70 percent of the world’s plants, says acclaimed North Coast garden designer Kate Frey. This includes many edibles, from nuts and fruits to tomatoes, peppers, berries and even some root crops like carrots and beets.
For all their virtues, bees have been suffering, not only from the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder in which the worker bees in hives can die off or desert, but from new pathogens, parasites, pesticides on the flowers they visit, herbicides that wipe out the plants they depend on and pests. In addition, habitat is disappearing due to development and monoculture — vast acreage of the same crop — that leave no sustenance for bees.
The good news is that even urban and suburban homeowners can help the bee cause and without sacrificing beauty, says Frey, co-author with San Francisco State University biology professor Gretchen LeBuhn of “The Bee-Friendly Garden” (Ten Speed Press, $19.99).
Frey’s North Coast vineyard gardens have proven that over and over. She took two gold medals and a silver gilt at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show near London with gardens filled with western native wildflowers, agricultural clovers in a painter’s palette of colors and grapevines. England’s horticulturists were abuzz about it, and the gardens were visited by The Queen.
“Our efforts in our home gardens collectively do make a difference,” said Frey, who creates striking gardens using plants suited to the particular environment, native plants, showy edibles and annuals, some of which may even reseed, such as poppies, phacelias, clarkias, borage, blanket flowers, black-eyed susans and bachelor buttons.
“Honeybees can fly up to five miles, but that is not optimum,” she said. “They can literally wear their wings out or away. And some of the small native bees cannot fly that far.”
Eric Mussen, a retired bee expert for the University of California Extension, estimates it takes one acre of flowers to support a single colony of honey bees. But even if you don’t have an acre, many small yards close together can provide enough nectar and pollen to support a good population of bees. They will give back by helping to make your garden flourish, and all of that pollen attracts insects, which are in turn food for baby birds.
“They’re discovering in many cases, maybe not all, that insect pollinated fruits and vegetables are better quality than fruits or vegetables that are pollinated by wind,” said Frey.
She has long been an advocate for habitat gardening. Frey designed The Melissa Bee Garden, a sanctuary for pollinators at the home of Barbara and Jacques Schlumberger in Healdsburg. She also designed the gardens at Lynmar Estate winery in Sebastopol, which are densely packed in summer with an effervescent explosion of ornamental edibles and flowers, everything serving the purpose of providing food for humans or wildlife.