Putting out some water is important for bees during hot, dry weather. (Mary Lowther photo)

Mary Lowther column: Bees are a must-have for any garden

Unless it gets too dry or hot, bees will happily pollinate until early August.

By Mary Lowther

We all know how important bees are for our gardens, aside from the honey some types produce. As David would say, I “husband” my two nectarine trees by sweeping a soft brush on their stamens over a period of several days because I just don’t see enough pollinators around when they’re blooming. But my efforts don’t hold a candle to an insect bent on retrieving every last drop of nectar from as many blooms as it can find. The few Mason bees that have hatched in my greenhouse recently must have a heyday with all the blossoms here because there are so few of them and so many of the flowers.

As the season warms up, my neighbour’s honey bees will arrive and populate our chestnut tree, raspberry canes and beauty bush and whatever flowers I have planted. This year I’m going to let the dandelions flower because I read that bees love them. I’ll have to watch though, because once they turn into fluff, I’m digging them up, which, so far, has been a fruitless endeavor to eradicate them from the lawn. Now I’m thinking that they’re not so bad and maybe I could even plant them in the garden as a cover crop and dig them in once the bees have had at them and before they go to seed because they don’t self-isolate. If dandelions remain in the area I choose to sow them, I won’t need to have them in the lawn.

Bees also love overwintered vegetables we save for seed because they are among the first plants to flower, and I’ve noticed that my cruciferous plants like broccoli flower for a few weeks.

Unless it gets too dry or hot, bees will happily pollinate until early August. We can make homes for Mason bees, but most of them don’t emerge until mid-April, while my nectarine trees blossom mid-March, so if I want a dependable harvest, I must hand pollinate them.

Other flowering plants that attract bees to our yards include the clovers, particularly deep-rooted white clover, alfalfa and heather. Before the advent of commercial fertilizers, white clover was used by farmers to fix nitrogen in soils, but since this plant’s been usurped, bees lost this important source of high-quality nectar and pollen.

Robust, healthy plants produce the most nutritious nectar for bees, and they seek out these plants. That’s why deep rooted ones that pull up nutrients from lower soil levels are chosen by them. They taste better. I have noticed that when I leave deep rooted perennial herbs a bit too long to harvest and they flower, bees inhabit them most thoroughly. I once had a rosemary bush that was taller than me that I wish I’d never cut down because whole families of bees lived in that bush for weeks when it flowered. But I was young and stupid and thought there were enough bees around and cutting my bush down wouldn’t make any difference.

When things dry up in our summers, bees (and other insects) desperately need water, so I plan on laying out a bowl of water with pebbles in it to give bees a place to sit while they drink. Speaking of ingesting, my dad used to quote a little poem to me about honey: “I eat my peas with honey, I’ve done it all my life. It makes the peas taste funny but it keeps them on my knife.” Evidently they had honey back in the dark ages when he was a lad.

Please contact mary_lowther@yahoo.ca with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.

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