Honey Isn’t Everything
As the earth starts to warm up (finally!), it’s delightful to spend a morning puttering in the garden. I love weeding and prinking in late winter, when shoots and buds are promising spring and the ground is soft and open. In between cloud bursts, I happily tug away old foliage and stems and divide aging grasses and late bloomers, finding more spacious homes for the crowded and showier spots for the shy. This makes a horrible mess, so finally I spread a layer of digested dairy manure, a lovely, lumpless carpet that looks like chocolate frosting. Admittedly, it still smells authentically of its humble origin, even though digested manure has been stripped of its bio-gasses, which are converted to electricity and sold back to the grid. I let it stand a season or two, so the smell recedes while the composting continues.
While tidying up, I keep an eye open for nests and cocoons as well as for the first sleepy bees. Most of the time they are not honeybees but smaller native bees that don’t make honey but are far better at pollinating. Of some 4,000 species of bees native to North American, perhaps a thousand are native to the Pacific Northwest (though some are not yet identified and some have vanished). Few resemble the iconic European honeybees and some may be mistaken for their wasp cousins, hover flies (fine little pollinators), or other insects. Similarly, native bee nests don’t look like honeybee hives, since the great majority are solitary rather than social (living together in hives). Some lay eggs in hollow-stemmed grasses, others nest in rotten logs or in tunnels or holes. All bees are good providers, stocking their nests with enough food (blends of pollen, nectar and antibacterial bee saliva) to support their offspring from egg to maturity.
Though Mason bees get the most press, many of our native bees are champion pollinators, while honeybees actually aren’t. Since about 75% of backyard food crops are bee pollinated, providing food and shelter for natives can pay off in big garden dividends. Naturally enough, native flowering plants will be the biggest draw for native bees (who will often go on to visit the imports). You’ll find some attractive and garden worthy plant choices among the Oregon grape family, from low growing Mahonia nervosa to shapely, mannerly forms of shrubby M. aquifolium such as Smaragd and Apollo. I always add insect favorites like Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor), and native roses to my own gardens if they aren’t there already, mainly because I love them too. Flowering currant and native honeysuckles are also rewarding, as are evergreen and deciduous huckleberries, thimbleberry, salmonberry, salal, ninebark, kinnikinnick and redtwig dogwoods.
Not too surprisingly, many native bee favorites are also loved by native butterflies. Indeed, when we amplify our garden palette with choice natives, our beds will come alive with a delightful range of beautiful critters, from helpful insects to lovely birds. Certain native perennials may appear without our help, including bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), red columbines (Aquilegia), pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), and avens (Geum macrophyllum). If they don’t pick the right place for themselves, gently reposition them now where they can flourish over time. I often group such volunteers between tall shrubs at the back of deep beds where they have room but don’t swamp proper border beauties.
Beyond Natives & Nectar
For some bees and butterflies, specific native plants are a must: without them they die. However, many native pollinators are generalists that find quite a range of non-native plants attractive and useful. Sidalceas and lavateras are popular in both native and non-native forms, as are violets, milkweeds (Asclepias), sweetpeas, dogwoods, and spireas. Orchards will benefit from Mason bees and veggie beds will attract native bees that appreciate tomatoes and peppers as well as squash and beans. Ornamental thistles please bees, butterflies and birds (especially goldfinches), while hops can gladden the heart of man (in liquid form, anyway) as well as butterflies and the smaller bees.
Nectar is not the only attraction in a well stocked garden, so don’t get bugged by bugs. Having a haze of insects hovering over your beds will just about guarantee you a host of birds (even hummers need protein as well as sweet desserts) as well as butterflies. Housing helps too; many grasses (especially stipas) are butterfly friendly host plants, while roses offer building material to leaf cutter bees along with their pollen and nectar. That’s a large part of why I tidy now, in late winter and early spring instead of in autumn; putting off the work protect and supports native pollinators and when I finally get around to it, there’s a lot less to do, since so much as self-composted in place.
Longing For More?
Here are links to lots of accurate regional information: