Updated: May 17
As an artist, I have always been passionate about environmental issues. Over the past two and a half years I’ve been working with themes involving native plants, pollinators, and women for my painting series Prairie Seed Dreaming. I believe that human connection is vital for helping reverse the current decline in pollinator population.
I’ve visited many Iowa prairies for inspiration and sketches. I’ve also been studying butterflies and bees. Along the way I’ve learned a lot, and wanted to share a bit of what I’ve found.
I know that the “save the bees” movement has become rather trendy lately. There is a lot of information circulating about bees, not all of it correct. I’ll clear some things up, and briefly go over some simple ways that you can help.
First, what is a pollinator?
There are many different types of pollinators. A pollinator is any animal that helps a plant spread it’s pollen. This includes bees, butterflies, flies, bees, birds, bats, and more. These tips will focus on helping bees. Note that most of the things that benefit bees will also benefit other pollinators as well.
You’ve all heard of honey bees. While honey bees are helpful, they are not the bees that need our help the most. Honeybees are not native, and are primarily used commercially. They are not threatened.
My focus is on native bees, like bumblebees, carpenter bees, and other solitary species. There are over 3,000 species of bees in North America alone. This includes specialty bees like squash bees who sleep in squash flowers, and blueberry bees. Native bees are more effective at pollinating our native crops, and wildlife. They also face the greatest threat from habitat loss.
What Can I do?
Our native bees benefit the most from native plants. Native plants have the added bonus of being naturally adapted to their environment, which means they grow easier. You’ll want to check regionally for a list of native plants. Since I live in the Midwest, I focus mostly on planting prairie flowers, and some wood land flowers.
Many bees like to visit one type of plant per outing. This means that it is helpful to have a few, say 3-4 of each type of flower.
Another thing to note is too avoid cultivars. Cultivars are the cultivated variety of a native plant that has been bread to have certain traits. For example, Columbine with double petals. While it may look pretty, this can make it harder for the bee to successfully reach the pollen.
A few native flowers that I grow are Black Eyed Susans, Purple Cone flower, Butterfly Weed, And Cardinal Flower. These are all prairie flowers that are adapted for my soil. I’ve been able to grow all of these successfully from seed, except the Cardinal Flower which I purchased as starts from Prairie Moon Nursery.
Note: These are native to the the Midwest.
Pesticides and Herbicides:
Naturally pesticides are harmful to bees. They are ingested by the bee when it collects contaminated pollen. However,
avoiding pesticides isn’t as easy as not spraying your lawn or garden. Some pesticides are already within the plants that you buy.
When purchasing plants for pollinators, make sure they are neonicitinoid free. Be aware of the practices of the green house you are buying from.
It doesn’t help anyone to go out to walmart and purchase a few colorful flowers only to have them end up harming the very bees you were trying to help.
Supporting Bee Homes:
Native bees do not build hives like honeybees. Bumblebees nest in the ground. Carpenter bees will use wood, and brush piles. Solitary bees will overwinter in hollow flower and plant stems. Most native bees are ground nesting. And many more bees and pollinators benefit from undisturbed brush areas. Basically, it’s easier and better to wait to clean up your garden until spring. Let nature take care of the fallen leaves. And leave some places wild and free.
Fear of Bees
I want to take a moment to address one more issue. Most of us were raised with a fear of bees. We may be wary of inviting them close to our home where are children play. What I have found through my prairie exploration, and work gardening, is that bees are not aggressive. They are not out to get me. If I remain calm, they remain calm. I can even direct them away from me, if needed, by reaching out a finger towards them and then leading it away. Usually the bee will follow the direction of my finger. The bees are our neighbors, and there is space for both of us as long as we are aware of their presence and remain calm.
I hope you’ve found my tips useful. I am very excited, as an artist to do my part in helping pollinators.
As with any project, it takes the combined efforts of many to see positive change. We are lucky that there are so many resources to help us help bees and other pollinators. Check locally to see how you can get involved.
Visiting Pollinator Partnership's website is an excellent place to start. They have a map detailing local Pollinator events.
Prairie Moon Nursery: Wide selection of native plant seeds and starts. Neonicitinnoid free.