Let me take you into the garden and show you an area of which I am quite proud: A pollinator garden in a south-facing location. I have pollinator beds all over my garden, and each seems to have a ‘moment.’ Well, right now, this one is having that moment.
Let me be absolutely clear: I do not have any particular ‘magic’ that makes a space turn out like this. Anyone can make this happen. There are a few perennials here (both natives and exotics), and a lot of annuals (both natives and exotics). I add perennials whenever I notice a place with a large hole, and the annuals are added four times a year by seed. Mixed with compost, they are scattered in any open spots. Each season gets different seeds. For instance, in November, I plan to scatter all the California native seeds like poppies and clarkias and phacelia and tidy tips. Then those will bloom in early spring. Doing it this way, I have almost continual bloom. The perennials fill in where the annuals cannot. This whole area gets regular irrigation, but that’s about the only input other than the compost that is added with seeds or plants. A couple of times a year, I go in and cut down a bunch of dried up plants, and it looks a little bare for a few weeks. Then the new flowers have a chance to take over.
Why do I go to this trouble? If you can even call it ‘trouble,’ it’s hardly anything planned (I just know that everything needs to handle full sun), and I’m never sure what’s it’s going to look like. Well, for one, it’s beautiful, and that gives me joy. I can cut bouquets as gifts or for my own house any time of year. There’s a living root in the ground at all times, which improves the soil. But the biggest reason is this: It’s a great diversity of plants, therefore a great diversity of forage, for the pollinators.
Beekeepers in California are inundated this time of year with warnings about ‘summer and fall dearth,’ or, a scarcity of pollen and nectar. Due to the fact we don’t have rain for many months (usually May-November), we can expect most native landscapes to look dry and bare right about now (summer is our dormant period, not winter); and most landscaped yards have very little that insects can use (grass, oleanders, mulberry trees, crepe myrtles - they do nothing for pollinators). And sure enough, in the September issue of my beekeeping association’s newsletter, there was a mention that we should begin feeding our bees pollen patties. Likewise, in the UCANR publication “Beekeeping in California,” there is this paragraph: “If they are going to build up quickly the next spring, colonies should go into winter with large, well-fed populations of young fat bees. In many locations in California there is not enough pollen to sustain adequate brood rearing through August and September and colonies should be fed pollen, pollen supplement, or a substitute.”
I have to say this bothers me.
When I started out with my first hive, I vowed that I would do as much as I could to provide for my bees. Would you adopt a new puppy, only to let him find what he could? Would you buy some chickens without also buying some feed? Why should it be any different with a colony of honeybees? Shouldn’t we plan to have as much forage as possible for them, as well as an adequate, year-round drinking source? It’s one thing for a colony of bees to establish themselves in an area with plenty of food, but it’s another to bring them into a bare yard and expect them to manage with whatever they can find. Most beekeepers feed their bees sugar water and/or strore-bought pollen patties during times of dearth to keep them alive and happy, and this works fine. It’s certainly better than letting them starve. But what nutrients are missing in those man-made foods? Wouldn’t it be better to have a large diversity of different flowers available for them, for as much of the year as possible?
Tom and I just stood out here in this pollinator patch today, watching and listening. This garden is alive. I think of the spiders who feed here, and the other predatory insects like mantids. Lizards! Birds! This is a healthy ecosystem and it’s not just about my honeybees.
My fellow beekeepers who start hives with no plan to feed them (other than making sugar water or buying pollen patties) are really missing an opportunity. I want to encourage them, and any landowner, or anyone who even rents property, to invest in feeding the ecosystems naturally. Many of us feel helpless in the face of habitat loss for things like the monarch butterfly. Well, here’s something we can do! Here’s how we can combat just a tiny bit of climate change. Here’s how we can help. Plant flowers. It is that simple.
P/S If you’d like a list of perennial plants and herbs I have planted at Poppy Corners, I can send you my plant inventory. This has common names, Latin names, and bloom times. I very much relay on perennials to get me from January through December, annuals are just icing. For annuals, I tend to plant California natives for early spring bloom; sunflowers for early summer bloom; cosmos, nasturtium, and zinnia for late summer blooms; and tithonia for fall bloom. I also rely on my annual vegetable plants to really help feed pollinators. Anything in the cucurbit family (cucumber, squash, melon) is a hit, as well as pepper flowers. Fruit trees can help with those early spring months. Ornamental trees native to your area will also help with different times of year. For winter, I rely on native perennials in our area, though winter bloom is nearly impossible in places with lots of snow.