Dreaming of Summer

Dreaming of Summer

Last summer, my daughter and I moved to a house in Saint Paul, Minnesota. We inherited a wild and bee-friendly garden. We moved in late June, so the pale purple bee balm was out in full force, shaking with bumblebees and smelling minty-medicinal. There were stiff sunflowers, swamp milkweed, common milkweed, some other lion-headed sunflowers I failed to identify, along with non-native stuff bees love like bachelor buttons, poppies, nasturtiums, and roses. One borage plant with sky-blue flowers seemed to bloom endlessly, a habitual morning nectar stop for honeybees. Next, huge stands of purple-tufted ironweed started in. Then some dwarf sunflowers opened their nectar-sticky faces. Zinnias began blooming after that, and suddenly a crazy squash plant appeared seemingly out of nowhere, cups like gold tunnels for winged visitors (though we deep-fried a day’s worth of blooms for dinner).  

Later in the season, goldenrod held court, along with dark-purple asters, reminding me of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s essay Goldenrod and Asters: My Life with Plants which asks, why such beauty 

wildflowers

I certainly can’t answer that, but I can say the season’s progression of iconic color combinations has utility. The blues and yellows of early spring, the reds and pinks of June, the rainbow of midsummer, and then the gemstone palate of early fall all share a purpose: feeding the bees through the season.  

Back in the day, bees could take flowers for granted. They just emerged in the spring, feasted, mated, and generally enjoyed life. There were plenty of flowers and plenty of bees. Nowadays, whether you’re a bumblebee just getting by in the city, a rural honeybee colony, or a migrating butterfly making pit stops across the nation, food and habitat are much more precarious. So, gardeners, farmers, homeowners, and other land managers have a huge responsibility: supporting bees across seasons and geography. We can think of ourselves working together on an epic space-time pollinator puzzle, planting flowers that will bloom from early spring to late fall and that will bloom across landscapes in ways that most benefit pollinators.  

Planting blooms throughout the season is the easier of the two challenges. It’s a matter of good planning in regard to whatever plot of land you have to steward. Studying what grows indigenously in your area is the best way to start. Your native bees certainly will have adapted to love those plants best, both for food and nesting. Next, observe what blooms on the two extremities of your growing season. For us in Minnesota spring, it’s pussy willows, maples, and squill (invasive, but honey bees love it, and so do I), while late in the season, it’s asters and goldenrod that the bees depend on. For you, what is it that blooms first and last?  

Planting flowers across space is more complex, I think. Johnny Appleseed walked across the country planting trees. Miss. Rumphius flung seeds as she went on long walks in Maine. No matter your seeding strategy, thinking through habitat connectivity — the way your pollinator garden connects to your neighbor’s — is essential. Monarchs need corridors of habitat to thrive, while others like bumblebees or many solitary bees need a big enough swath of habitat to live out their lives.  

Connectivity requires planning, communication with your neighbors, and creativity. Are there shared public places that could serve as bridges between gardens? Parks, boulevards, roadsides? Is there organizing to change ordinances so that you and your neighbors are allowed to keep your lawns a bit longer, a little more colorful with flowers?  

Or perhaps you already live in a neighborhood littered with “bee-friendly yard” signs and more butterfly weed than even butterflies know what to do with. In this case, adding more flowers could be redundant, but your passion for the topic isn’t. Here in the Twin Cities, I love the work that Metro Blooms is doing on habitat connectivity. They work to identify places that lack pollinator habitat (which doubles as green spaces for people, birds, and animals; for mitigating climate change and protecting clean water). Then they work with neighborhoods to support and realize visions for local green places. Sometimes finding (and funding) organizations that can get plants in the ground where they are most needed is the best use of your resources. Since urban communities lacking green space or green infrastructure are disproportionately low-income communities of color, seeking out the work of BIPOC-owned urban farms or BIPOC-lead environmental organizationss to support is essential. 

Bumble bee feeding on a wild bergamot blossom

In rural areas, habitat connectivity is just as important, though the way land is lived on and managed is very different. Because they often manage hundreds or thousands of acres, farmers can have a huge impact by adding in pollinator-friendly cover crops, like alfalfa, or seeding the edges of fields or ditches with pollinator seed mixes. I love it when landowners commit to planting habitat on unfarmed acres or previously monoculture lawns. Or when gardeners of any stripe leave fields unmowed, garden stalks untrimmed, sticks uncleared, for housing bees. And there is support for rural farmers and landowners trying to get habitat in the ground, such as the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund, which curates seed mixes and helps establish habitat for eligible pollinator lovers. 

And finally, something that gets left out of many planting-for-bees-conversations: if you love some blooms that bees don’t, you should plant those, too. Even on the micro-scale of a single lawn or garden plot, your flowers should support you, dear human, along with the bees. So many of our flowering plants benefit us both. For example, a big clump of oregano or basil in bloom will serve many bees as well as your cooking projects. I require the color of marigolds in my life. Those guys aren’t essential for bees, but they are important to me, so they always have a place in my garden, and the bees don’t mind one bit.   

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Originally published in the Dec2021/Jan2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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