Roots and Shoots: Plant a Native Flower, Save a Bee

By Pamela Doan

I read the story that made the rounds last week about the mass die-off of 40-50 percent of the honeybees with a sick feeling. It’s hard not to find terrible news about nature or the environment on a daily basis, but if you’ve been paying attention, you know that bees have been dying in droves for nearly a decade. It’s called colony collapse disorder, and mites, disease and pesticides have all been named as possible causes. This time around, a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids may be involved.

There are more than 4,000 species of native bees in the U.S., and one third of our food supply needs pollination from bees. Essentially all fruit that has seeds and many vegetables, from asparagus to watermelons, need pollination. Almonds, olives, alfalfa and soybeans couldn’t be harvested without pollination. If you enjoy fruits and vegetables, thank a bee for its invaluable role in producing it.

Bee drunk with spring happiness.

Bee drunk with spring happiness.

Neonicotinoids were the answer to highly toxic organophosphates, which are a class of pesticides that work like a nerve gas for insects and function like the same stuff that is used in chemical warfare. It might take a better Internet researcher than I am to track down brand-name products that contain neonicotinoids, but imidacloprid is one that I found mentioned frequently.

Some studies have demonstrated the toxic effects of imidacloprid on honeybees. The same active agent that makes imidacloprid so effective as a pesticide, its systemic staying power on plants and in soil, survives in bees and is believed to be spread through a colony by bees that are contaminated. Spain, Italy and France are among the multiple European countries that have all suspended the use of neonicotinoids and are urging the European Union to do so, as well. In the U.S., a group of growers and environmentalists recently filed a petition asking the EPA to suspend use, too.

If national news about the state of bees is dire, how are local farms affected? I spoke to Josh Morgenthau, third-generation farmer and the owner of Fishkill Farms. They have a CSA, apple orchards and organic produce, not to mention delicious apple cider donuts. Morgenthau said, “I’m worried about this problem. We’ve have had bumblebees brought in, but we’ve been lucky so far and have good natural pollinators.”

Morgenthau described an increase in wild bees when the farm went organic. As part of Eco Apple, a program for small and mid-size growers in the Northeast, Fishkill Farms follows the protocols of Integrated Pest Management. It’s similar to guidelines for organic growing but acknowledges that growing apples without any chemicals is extremely difficult and that some usage is allowed under certain conditions.

Bee-friendly mountain mint

Bee-friendly mountain mint

Integrated Pest Management can be applied to any home garden or landscape, too. The approach relies on careful identification of the pathogen or pest and treats the ecosystem holistically. Most of us are ready to reach for a bug spray to get rid of a pest rather than first look at the function of that pest in the landscape and non-chemical approaches to controlling it. Responsibly evaluating the biological, cultural and physical methods to address the problem takes more effort, but it will prevent damage and harm to all the living plants and creatures in your garden, your neighbor’s yard and wherever else the chemicals travel in the wind or water.

A lot of magazines and websites emphasize butterfly-friendly gardens, but bee-friendly gardens are beautiful and useful, too. I’ve been planting cosmos, which are asters, for the past few years in the same spot in my yard. All kinds of bees love them and they flower all summer long. Native flowering plants are especially good in supporting our native bees. Joe Pye weed, ironweed and coneflowers are just a few that have gorgeous color and provide lush habitat for bees. The Native Plant Center in Westchester has upcoming classes on gardening to attract beneficial insects and landscaping for beekeepers.

Kim Eierman, an environmental horticulturist who teaches classes at the Native Plant Center, the Bronx Botanical Gardens and many other places, recommends layering your landscape to create a supportive bee landscape. “There are about 470 native bees in New York, and then there are honeybees, which are not native. They have different needs, so a diverse range of plants is the key. In the spring, bees emerge hungry, so native trees that provide pollen and some nectar like sugar and red maples, tulip trees and willows, among others, are the first line of nutrition. Later in the spring, your flowering shrubs like black cherry, winterberry and clethra compliment your natives like anise hyssop, woodland sunflowers, mountain mints and milkweeds.”

After reading all this, you might be thinking, “Yeah, sure, but if I’m attracting all these bees to my yard, don’t I have to worry about stings?” Kim had an answer for this, too. “Bees don’t care about us and aren’t aggressive. Yellow jackets, which are aggressive, aren’t bees and should be treated differently.” So plant natives, avoid the pesticides, and do good by the bees. You won’t regret it.

Garden questions? Send them here: [email protected].

Photos by P. Doan

One thought on “Roots and Shoots: Plant a Native Flower, Save a Bee

  1. Thanks for raising awareness about this issue! I’d like to share an upcoming event with your readers: I will be teaching “Gardening for Beekeepers (and people who love bees)” at Westchester Community College in Valhalla on June 2nd as part of The Native Plant Center’s “Go Native U.” You can also learn more about the value of pollinators on my website at

    A few follow-ups on the article: I teach at the New York Botanical Garden (in the Bronx). Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) is actually one of our many native trees which support native bees and the European honey bee. Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) is a valuable native shrub for pollinators which blooms in the summer and, as its name suggests, has a lovely fragrance.