A burly bumblebee nose dives into the unfurling gold petals of a California poppy and vanishes. I lean ever closer until I’m a foot away. The bee spirals up and out, bearing pollen on her legs. Off she hums to the next flower, almost bumping into the honeybees plying the summer morning air.
I’m surrounded by hundreds of honeybees and smaller numbers of native bees that gather pollen and nectar from the chaotic beauty of our flower-filled front yard that only last year was mostly a tangle of lawn grass, cheatgrass and thistle.
Last fall, we (mostly Wes) dug up an area the size of a basketball court. This spring, we planted a couple pounds of wildflower/bee mix seeds, sprinkling them with a load of topsoil. We try to water efficiently in this high desert climate. The low cost result? We feel like we’re living in an impressionist painting or inhabiting a Georgia O’Keeffe poppy painting. We’re a bit amazed at our beginners’ luck with large-scale planting.
Our goal is to create a super-sized feast in a small space to do our part for pollinators that need our help more than ever. In addition to our seeds, we’ve bought native plants from WinterCreek Nursery and in our far part of the front yard are transplanting Idaho fescue, penstemon, rabbitbrush and other natives from the Deschutes National Forest (with a collecting permit). We also have a patch of milkweeds for monarch butterflies.
Every day this past week, more and more honeybees come to the flowers. They’re here with the first sun that flows in from the east, and are mostly gone by afternoon. Each morning, I take my cup of coffee and wander ever so slowing into the flowers. The bees hum a hymn of nature’s praise.
Not to be outdone by the magnificence of bees, two rufous hummingbirds perform their territorial aerial ballet at breathtaking speeds. Ziiiinnnng! They sip from Rocky Mountain penstemons and vie for rights to the hummingbird feeders. A family of mountain chickadees that nested in a hole in an old stump gathers in a nearby tree. Their dee dee dees harmonize with the humming of bees that fills my senses like a Gregorian chant.I’ve grown curious about where the honeybees come from, since we don’t know of hives nearby. To find out, I posted in our Nextdoor website for Deschutes River Woods (a private, social network for communities). The replies came in right away. Now, I know of several hives on a street about a mile away that could be the source. One master beekeeper (who calls her bees “our girls”) replied: “Your positive post is helpful because there are a lot of bee haters and our girls get sprayed. People think foraging bees are menacing and out to sting like wasps and yellow jackets…”
As soon as I read her post, I knew today’s blog subject. It’s time to PRAISE BEES. I ponder the disconnect between the person who slathers honey on a piece of toast and then reaches for a toxic sprayer to kill pretty much anything that buzzes around the house and yard. Okay. Stings hurt. (We do use a eco-friendly spray to keep yellowjackets from nesting in our house eves–and keep that to a minimum). However, honeybees rarely sting when the worker bees (the girls) are out foraging. If you tore into their hive like a bear, of course they’d defend their home. The key to bee enjoyment –wild and honeybees alike–is to watch where you step or touch.
I’m writing this Blog outside on a stool in the garden with bees all around me and the word that comes to mind? Gentle. Their touch upon every poppy’s circle of pollen-rich anthers is both tender and focused. Crouched by a flower, I can see the yellow pollen baskets on their legs. What I can’t see is the flight back to the hive, where waiting worker bees will pack the pollen into cells, using their heads to press it in firmly. Somewhere in the process, they mix in nectar and bee secretions. They’re filling the larder with protein to feed everyone in the hive. Nectar alone is not enough. Pollen is the bread of their lives.
Please welcome bees. Plant flowers–lots of them. Dig up part or all of your lawn. Make sure you have many native species of flowers and shrubs interspersed with the more regional varieties (like our poppies). Plants that evolved where we live host picky caterpillars that in turn support butterflies and birds. To raise our one family of chickadees, the diligent parents had to find 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to feed them.And then there are the blossoms and blooms for bees and butterflies. The key? Create a blaze of flowers. Think diversity of shapes, sizes, and times of blooming. Plant them like a scattered rainbow. From above, our flowers are like a glowing torch advertising to the bees–come here, come here, come here!
Be open to the variety of insects that inhabit a wilder yard. For instance, parasitic wasps do not sting and are important predators that keep down insect numbers that could become pests to crops. Did you know that native bees pollinate many of the crops that become our favorite foods, including almonds, apples, blueberries, squash, and tomatoes, plus alfalfa that feeds our farm animals?
Mix in honeybees that yield honey and we’re beholden to bees and to beekeepers. Praise to beekeepers! We need them and it’s getting tougher to assure their honeybees find enough flowers in a world increasingly dominated by pesticide-sprayed land, asphalt, and green chemlawns. Climate change is hurting bees, too, with chaotic swings in weather. As our overall planet warms, we’re experiencing more extremes ,from vicious heat to numb-biting cold. Beekeepers must be passionate, dedicated, and something more. Their bees are like family. The good news? We can help them out.Once, a swarm of bees poured into a pot in a backyard in my former home of Missoula. I called a young beekeeper named Sam, whose father owned a honey business. He came right away with his portable hives. Without even donning a bee suit, he coaxed them out of the pot and into the hives. Bees covered his bare arms like intricate tattoos. They buzzed in a halo around the head of this St. Francis of the bees. Not one sting.
Please bear with bees. Invite them in. Know that without bees, our food pantries would be bare. And besides, who doesn’t love sweet, thick, amber local honey to swirl on toast, a sandwich, or to sweeten tea? I’m getting hungry….time for an almond butter and honey sandwich.
Thank a honeybee. Thank a beekeeper. Thank all who plant on their behalf. For ideas on native plants in your region that support caterpillars, check out this National Wildlife Federation Native Plant Finder. If you live in our region and want to try the same mix we did for these wildflowers, we got them from Rainier Seeds. Find a native plant nursery and buy from them for select plantings. I’m a huge fan of Bend’s WinterCreek Nursery. If you have more questions, feel free to contact me.