Create a garden both you and Sonoma County bees will love

A garden humming with bees will lead to a more bountiful harvest of larger and healthier fruits and vegetables.|

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.

It began years ago when Frey took over the gardens at the former Fetzer Valley Oaks estate in her hometown of Hopland. She hadn’t really thought about it, however, until one day when she noticed a man gesticulating in the Valley Oaks garden. She asked him what he was looking at and he declared, “This is the best garden I’ve ever seen.” It turns out he was Dr. Gordon Frankie, a research specialist in bees who heads up the UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab.

“He’s really funny and engaging, and his enthusiasm was infectious. It made me really start looking at what was visiting each flower,” Frey said. “Once you learn the life story of a bee and start seeing them as individuals, then it’s something that never leaves you. Every time you see a flower you wonder what is visiting that flower.”

When Ten Speed Press was looking for someone to do a book on bee-friendly gardens, Frey was a natural choice. She and LeBuhn have put together a comprehensive illustrated guide that covers the different kinds of bees, tips for designing a bee garden, extensive plant lists that are general and broken down by region, as well as other fundamentals to turn even a small space into a bee oasis.

Bees need three basic things, she says: a nesting site, food and a healthy habitat. They also will need a water source with some kind of landing pad, like cork, to prevent them from drowning. This can even be a bowl. Keeping it fresh discourages mosquitoes.

One important thing to keep in mind is that bees need a diversity of plants, just like humans need a wide variety of foods in their diet. They also need a selection of blooms to visit throughout the year, from early spring to autumn.

Frey suggests first observing your garden and noting which plants are visited by bees and which are not. Then choose from the various plants that will do well in your soil and climate and that strike your fancy, and plug those into empty or open spaces.

“Some of our most simple, best loved garden plants are bee friendly,” she said. Reliable and attractive plants for the North Coast include cosmos, which come in pink, white or orange; sunflowers; blanket flowers; and black-eyed susans.

Red and California poppies are popular with bees and pretty in spring. Also beautiful in spring are blue phacelia.

Another great cool season annual is Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens,’ or the blue shrimp plant that produces deep purple bracts.

Bee-friendly plants ideally should be planted in sunny spots, although some filtered light is OK, Frey said, explaining, “Bees like warmth.”

Also plant in multiples. Planting a single example of each plant, like one Gallardia or one Cosmos, won’t provide enough floral resource for bees to visit it, she stressed. It is okay to spread one variety throughout the garden, however.

Don’t worry that a bee-friendly garden will look scrubby or seem uninviting. Unlike yellow jackets, honeybees and native bees generally aren’t aggressive unless they feel threatened. And there are so many beautiful plants on the bee-friendly list that you can create really any type of garden you want, from cottage to formal.

“They’re flower filled and they’re filled with color,” she said, “and they make us happy.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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