flowers

How to Help the Bees and Other Pollinators

By Carol Quish for UConn Extension

Bees are extremely important and responsibly for 75% of the foods we eat every day. There are more than 4,000 species of bees in North America, and about 350 in the Northeast. They include honeybees, bumble bees, mason bees, carpenter bees, sweat bees, orchard bees, and the list goes on! Some are programmed to visit only a certain species of plants while others are cosmopolitan feeders, going to a wide variety of flowers to seek out nectar and pollen. They all pollinate flowers that then produce a fruit or vegetable. Leaf crops are the exception, but it could be said that without pollination, fruiting and the resulting seed production, there would not be seed for future leaf crops. So we need bees, all kinds of bees, not just honey bees. Other insects, animals and even some birds also pollinate certain crops. Hummingbirds come to mind for one.

How do we keep our bee pollinators happy and alive to do the job? I have listed the highlights of ways we humans can assist this important tasks on which we depend.

monarch butterflyFood for bees. Plant flowers. Trees and shrubs are important flowering plants in addition to the perennials, annuals and vegetables that we normally think of when taking bees into consideration. Trees and shrubs typically flower very early in the spring, some in late winter, providing nectar sources for the very early bees that emerge from their winter hiding places and nests. Willows and witch hazels are bloomers bees count on. Think continued blooming to feed from early season until will into the fall. Also plant en masse. Bees flying overhead are more likely to find larger groupings of plants in flower than just one or two plants spaced apart.

Types of plants that provide a heavy nectar source are best. Single flowered plants produce more nectar and pollen than plants bred for double flowers. An example is cosmos; the original single petal variety is better for bees than the flower with a double row of petals. The same goes for double petunias. Think single flowers. Plants in the mint and aster families are huge nectar producers beloved by bees. Asters and golden rod bloom late when there is not much else out. It goes without saying that native plants will be a benefit to native bees, aligned to bloom and provide sustenance at just the right time it is needed most.

The Xerces Society has a great native plant list for the northeast.

Water for bees. All life needs water. Bees do not swim, nor can they ‘stand’ on water. Birdbaths are great, just keep them shallow and place a rock with the top exposed into the center of the water. This gives the bees a place to drink from without drowning. In the wild, bees drink from damp edges of streams and ponds, and wet soil. Place shallow plates of water among your plants.

Housing for bees. Honeybees can live in hives, managed by humans, but they don’t need our help. In nature, they will find a protected hole in a tree, a cavity or wall void in which to live. There are many other bee species that are not honeybees. Two thirds of these bees live in than soil. Some solitary, others in communities. Beware of soil tillage. Digging up the ground can and will disturb bee nests. Observe an area before disturbing the soil. If bees are present, if you see them entering the ground, coming and going, you have an active bee pollinator area. Bees like to live in a sunny area where the soil is warmer, and especially on the edge of woods. Dead trees and broken branches, piles of brush and undisturbed grassy areas provide protection and cover for many bee living quarters. Some bees make their homes in hollow stems of plants; others will hollow out dead twigs. As gardeners, we usually clean up these areas, but leave some as bee habitat.

Don’t use pesticides. To protect the bees, never spray any insecticide or fungicide when flowers are open and bees are present. Bees are active during daylight hours, so for growers and others that must spray as a last resort for certain pests and crops, it should be applied during the dark of morning, i.e. 4 a.m. to avoid hitting the bees and so that the pesticide dries before the bees become active. Systemic insecticides, ones that are applied to the soil then taken up by the plant, will move to all parts of the plant, including the pollen, nectar and even gutation water formed as tiny droplets expressed on leaf edges. Bees will take in the pesticide through these sources, and while it may not be enough to kill them outright, the toxins will weaken the bees and build up in the colony.

To learn more please visit the UConn Home and Garden Education Center

Hydrangea Pruning

hydrangeaprunning

photo by Joey Williamson, Clemson Extension

The hydrangea in front of my house is just a bunch of bare sticks in the winter, screaming to be cut down. It looks like quite a leafless eyesore after losing foliage in the fall. During the winter the local chickadees use it as a perch beneath the hanging bird feeder. The avian flocks do not mind its ugliness. I don’t mind it either knowing the flower buds are on those naked sticks, waiting for the coming spring and summer to bloom. There are five different types of hydrangeas. Some bloom on old wood and some on new wood.

My hydrangea is a Hydrangea macrophylla or Bigleaf Hydrangea. The ones that bloom on old wood carry the next year’s flower buds on the barren sticks, through the fall, winter and next spring. If these are pruned during the fall, winter or spring, the flower buds will be removed. The plant will grow new stems and leaves from the base of the plants, but these stalks will NOT contain flower buds, therefore no flowers that year. The flower buds are produced and set after the plant flowers in June and July but before fall. Any pruning should be done as the flowers fade during the summer to avoid cutting off the buds. I remember to prune Hydrangea macrophylla when I cut flowers for a vase to bring inside. Sometimes our winters are just too cold for the tender over-wintering buds, killing the buds, resulting in no flowers the following summer even if pruned correctly.

Hydrangea macrophyllas are divided into two groups, Hortesia and Lacecap. Hortensias have big ball flower forms. Lacecaps have a somewhat flat top shaped flower. These bloom on old wood, prune after flowering but before August 1st.

Hydrangea quercifolia, commonly called Oakleaf Hydrangea also blooms on old wood. Prune after flowering. If terminal buds are killed during winter, no flowers will be produce. Should be protected in zone 5.

Two other common hydrangea bloom on new wood, wood produce from the plant during the same year. These are Hydrangea paniculata grandiflora, commonly called Panicle or PG Hydrangea and Hydrangea arborescens, commonly called Smooth Hydrangea. These can be pruned in late fall, winter or early spring. The flower buds will be produced on the new wood produced in spring.

Hydrangea paniculata, Panicle Hydrangea. Prune in early spring.

Hydrangea arborescens, Smooth Hydrangea blooms on new wood. Prune in winter or early spring.