By Lisa Brunette
As the bees come out this spring, your thoughts might return again to how to help these crucial pollinators. And when I say help them, I really mean help ourselves, since we utterly depend on them to pollinate our food plants. Well, here are two ways you can do this right now: 1) by participating in a backyard bee survey called Shutterbee and/or 2) simply planting more pollinator-supporting plants this spring.
The citizen-science program to study backyard bee populations - AKA 'Shutterbee' - is now open for registration! Participants like me who are returning from last year have already taken our refresher courses, and we're getting ready to begin bee surveys again in May. But if you live in the St. Louis area and would like to sign up for the first time, now's your chance.
A reporter for the Webster Journal conducted a video interview with me about Shutterbee this spring.
I've also written about Shutterbee previously:
To sign up, all you have to do is register. To learn more about Shutterbee, visit the program website. Shutterbee researchers also publish a Bee Brigade Bulletin full of gardening advice and fascinating bee research tidbits.
If you're worried about getting stung, I suggest putting those fears aside, as Shutterbee focuses on rather harmless native bee populations. Honeybees may send some running for the hills for fear of being stung, but most native bees are harmless, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). “Most don’t have stingers long enough to penetrate human skin,” said MDC Community and Private Land Conservation Branch Chief Bill White.
Bee-Friend Native Pollinators
One easy thing you can do to support native bee populations is plant more pollinator-friendly plants. Native bees are doing their agricultural duty by pollinating flowering plants that provide food, fiber, and even medicines, and the more we can do to support them, the better.
MDC Urban Wildlife Biologist Erin Shank explained that native bees, such as the bumblebee, are effective pollinators because of a technique called buzz pollination.
“It’s a vibrating movement involving their wing muscles that allows the bumblebee to free pollen from the anther, the flower’s pollen-producing structure,” Shank said. “This strategy causes the flower to explosively release pollen. There are some flowering plants that will release pollen only through buzz pollination. One favorite, the tomato plant, requires either buzz pollination or visitation by a larger bodied bee, such as the bumblebee.”
Bee a Friend
There are several ways the public can support native bees. Shank said the best way is to get floral.
“It’s all about the flowers,” Shank stressed. “Provide native companion plants, and especially those with colorful blossoms, because color attracts bees.”
Companion planting, in which one plant helps the growth of another, can help facilitate the pollination of fruits and vegetables. For example, planting bee balm can help pollinate tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Other examples of flowering companion plants include sunflowers, wild hyacinth, blue wild indigo, purple prairie clover, and common milkweed.
There are several options of flowering trees and shrubs, too.
“Redbud, American plum, and golden currant are great for pollinators,” said White.
It's a good idea to plan for blooms throughout the year. The first native plant to bloom in Missouri is the American witch hazel, or Hamamelis virginiana, which produces ribbony orange-and-yellow blooms as early as February. They give off the strong scent of cloves. What could possibly pollinate these flowers so early has been a bit of a puzzle for botanists, but research shows native bees carried the highest percentage of witch hazel pollen of all possible pollinators, once again showcasing the importance of native bees.
Shank noted that providing more flowers can also mean not mowing the lawn as much.
“Clover, violets, and dandelions are some common lawn plants that provide vital food for bees – especially in the spring before most flowers appear,” Shank explained. “Delaying mowing or mowing higher can help bees by letting the plants grow. Even allowing access to the ground by not mulching every inch can help. Some bees need access to the soil to excavate their nests.”
No Yard? No Problem!
Shank said residents who live in urban areas without access to a yard can still be a big help to native bees.
Surprisingly, St. Louis, for example, has one of the most diverse bee populations in the Midwest, with more than 200 species found in the city limits alone.
“You can offer bees native flowers in a planting box or pot,” Shank explained. “Getting involved in a community garden or helping plant at a nearby park is great, too.”
For those without a green thumb, it may be tempting to buy the bee houses or hotels being offered in stores. However, the real need is not nesting sites, but native flowering plants. Many of the commercially available bee hotels contain the wrong length of tubes or wrong diameter for many native bees. Find out how to build your own by following the guidelines offered by the Xerxes Society.