When Bees Are Not Invited
Over the years, I’ve written a lot about how to attract bees, keep them safe and make them happy. However, a reader who is deathly allergic to bees (and about 5% of the population is) wonders what he might safely plant to reduce his garden’s attractions for bees. He doesn’t want to do anything that would harm bees, but is understandably interested in limiting his exposure to potentially life-threatening situations.
Fair enough! For starters, busy bees are really not interested in people and can be amazingly tolerant of humans’ inadvertent interactions. Things may get a little dicey when bees accidentally get trapped inside a house or car and become confused and frightened. Bees will also react when stepped on (surprise!), but bees don’t sting lightly, because stinging costs them their lives.
Avoid Bee-loved Plants
Fortunately for those who need to limit their exposure to bees, they can avoid uncomfortable encounters by planting things that bees don’t find compellingly attractive. For example, bees greatly prefer simple single blossoms rather than deeply ruffled and/or doubled flowers, which are more challenging to pollinate. Bees also choose yellow, purple or blue flowers over red ones, probably because bee eyes don’t perceive red shades very well. Also, there are some flowers bees just don’t like, for whatever reason. Thus, double red petunias would be almost guaranteed not to invite bee visits.
However, there are no guarantees, so let’s say up front that nothing but a glass bubble will keep bees entirely out of your garden. Still, bees are smart and they remember where the good stuff is. If trips to your garden are unproductive, the bees will stop coming to yours and visit the neighbors’ instead. Remember, too, that bees are not interested in plants that are pollinated by wind, birds, or insects, a limitation that offers bee-averse folks hundreds of attractive (to humans) options.
Choose Bee-reft Bushes
Like what? Well, conifers like compact firs and dwarf pines are obvious choices, as are foliage plants that bloom scantily, or can easily be sheared to remove blossom buds. Consider creating lovely contrasts of color, shape, and texture by combining foliage shrubs, ferns, bamboos and grasses (which are wind pollinated). Such a garden does not depend on flowers for its beauty and can be surprisingly colorful through much of the year.
Which shrubs fit the bill? Evergreen or deciduous, euonymus comes in numerous green, gold or even pink-tinged forms, from ground covers to shrubs. Diablo, a near-black cousin of native ninebark, blooms briefly in late spring but provides a dramatic backdrop for golden or chartreuse foliage well into autumn. Smoke bush boasts foliage in old gold, deep purple, soft green or rusty red, with fluffy plumes of insect-pollinated blossoms in midsummer. Heavenly bamboo (actually related to barberries, but not bee-pollinated) has feathery foliage in soft or bright colors, from jade green to plum purples or firecracker reds and oranges.
Fewer Flowers, More Handsome Foliage
You don’t need to avoid flowers altogether, but to keep bee visits to a minimum, concentrate on those that aren’t nectar-rich. Japanese anemones, begonias, and zinnias are good choices. Shade-loving impatiens is also low-nectar and not bee friendly, perhaps because bees prefer to forage in sunshine. Shade tolerant coleus, a basil relative, comes in a remarkable range of colors, with varied leaf size and shapes as well. Coleus will occasionally flower, but any flowering shoots should be pinched off anyway, since the plant will be bushier and produce more foliage if not allowed to bloom.
Though most fragrant flowers attract bees, intensely scented flowers often repel them. For example, bees avoid chrysanthemums, geraniums, marigolds, artemisias and feverfew. They also tend to ignore late bloomers like evening primrose and angel trumpets that are pollinated by bats and/or night flying moths. Hummingbird pleasers like fuchsias, trumpet vine, and columbines seem to baffle bees as well. If all else fails, you could do as one lovely gardening friend did and garnish the garden with unfailing color from plastic flowers. When the garden seemed dull or party time approached, she’d head for the dollar store and stock up on geraniums, peonies, roses and so forth. Back home she artfully wove them into her evergreen matrix for a playfully festive effect that brightened the garden without attracting a single bee.