August 1, 2014 at 1:00 am

Yardsmart

Plant a balm for the vanishing bees

Bee-attracting perennials like this purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, are often part of Michigan gardens. (Maureen Gilmer / MCT)

A decade ago, bees of any kind were insecta non grata in most American gardens. Double that in swimming pool landscaping. But things have changed dramatically since then as we wake up to the dwindling population of pollinators crucial to so many agricultural crops.

My epiphany about bees revolved around experiences with certain plants. It began in my Sierra mountain home with bee balm, a lovely perennial. That first year after planting, it spread into a dense mat of foliage, but the second year was different. Out of the root crowns rose tall slender stalks that brought their flowers up to eye level. The buds opened into curious lavender colored blossoms that were instantly mobbed with bees. I instantly understood why cold-hardy Monarda fistulosa was dubbed bee balm.

The bees that arrived on my flowers were familiar honey bees, but with them came many other curious native insects that Id never seen before on my other flowers. These native bees vary in size and color from the tiny leafcutter to enormous jet black carpenter bees. As they worked their way around each flower, it was easy to see the differences between them. When there are children in the home, this single plant can become the basis for a whole science lesson on diversity and pollinators without ever leaving the backyard.

Years later, when Id moved to the desert, another bee plant proved just as popular. The queens wreath vine, Antigonon leptopus, is from the arroyos of the desert southwest. This lacy vine loves high heat, and it blooms all summer in striking coral sprays. It grew upon my front gate, where the lacy blossoms cast lovely shadow patterns against the stucco wall. Here, I was able to see the bee activity every time I came and went. I saw many honeybees, but, again, there were other rarely seen natives.

These two plants demonstrate an important difference in plants for bees. Monarda blooms for a period of weeks. This offers only a brief time in which it can support the local bee population. Queens wreath, on the other hand is a long-term bloomer that continually produces new buds over many months. This long bloomer is a better choice for supporting bees, so they hang around much longer.

To make your yard a better habitat for these hard-working insects, strive for diversity by growing a number of different plants that bees like for continuous food sources through the seasons. Select some for spring, others for summer and, later on, try fall bloomers like asters. Those that are native locally will always be the best choice for both the bees and ease of cultivation. Stick with perennials that get better every year, plus you can divide them to spread around. Creating groups of the same plant is recommended by experts for enhanced habitat.

It also helps to know which plants dont lure bees. Entomologists tell us to beware of frilly double flowered annuals and other high-bred varieties that may have lost their natural bee appeal. Bees have unique vision that sees colors we dont. A simple wild daisy may be far more outstanding in their eyes, but if breeding has lost that range of the color spectrum, it interferes with the bees recognizing the blossom.

The best way to feed the bees is to stick with the old-fashioned garden flowers your grandmother grew. These original strains are also affordably started from seed, so even small budget gardeners can afford an abundant bee-friendly landscape. Then start testing what plants do best in your yard. Above all, note their time and duration of bloom to keep the bees feeding and nectar flowing all year round.

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at MoPlants.com. Contact her at mogilmer@yahoo.com or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.

Bee balm is an exceptional, lovely and native perennial wildflower that is ... (Maureen Gilmer / MCT)