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Bring Back the Bees!

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by Sarah Galvan

There are many things you can do to help pollinators. Start by making your garden prime real estate for these fuzzy, buzzy critters! Plant plants that bloom from spring to fall to supply food (nectar) throughout the growing season.

The recent Cheerios “Bring Back the Bees” campaign is a wonderful opportunity to increase the bee population and incorporate bee friendly plants in our garden. But the timing and species selection of wildflower seeds in the packets may not be just right for San Antonio’s unique climate.

Firstly, instead of spring we usually sow wildflowers in the fall and even in winter if it’s warm enough. The wildflower seed distributed by Cheerios may or may not germinate this spring and if it does, it will have to compete for resources with surrounding plants much larger than it, putting the seedlings at a disadvantage.

Another concern is some of the species included in the seed mix are not native to our area, while others are not native to this continent. In some instances, non-native species can harm native plant communities by forming monocultures, which in turn harms the wildlife that depend on them, including pollinators.

Native Pollinators

Still, there are many things you can do to help pollinators — and bring bees back! First and foremost, get familiar with the issues facing pollinators today. The Xerces Society is a great resource for this information. Another important thing I must stress is the lack of emphasis on native pollinators; only recently has a native pollinator been listed as federally endangered. This is a step in the right direction because it will bring attention to the many other dwindling populations of native bees.

While the European honeybee is utilized as an agricultural tool and is experiencing some population losses, they’re raised all over the world by beekeepers and are not necessarily in as much danger as our rare native species. They also compete for resources with our native species, making times even harder for our native species.

Native pollinators are known as keystone species, meaning many other species depend on their existence. For example, if there are no bees to pollinate herbaceous flowers and flowering trees, then there will be no fruit and seed produced for birds and mammals.

According to some experts, 40 percent of the world’s pollinator species face extinction in the next few decades! We must be wise when considering these life-giving critters and do all we can to ensure their survival.

Many things harm our pollinators including habitat loss, habitat degradation, widespread insecticide use, invasion by non-native plants and contraction of disease from domesticated bee colonies.

How to Help

Now that we know the threats, what can we do about it? For starters, you can design your garden using plants that bloom from spring to fall to supply food (nectar) throughout the growing season.

Consider planting agarita, prairie penstemon, Texas redbud, antelope horn milkweed, Mexican plum or Anaqua to bloom in spring. To ensure summer blooms, plant mealy blue salvia, narrow-leaf coneflower, butterfly weed, damianita, blackfoot daisy and autumn sage. For fall blooms, liatris, fall aster and wooly ironweed are good choices.

Agarita – Mahonia trifoliolata

Texas redbud–Cercis canadensis var. texensis

Mexican plum–Prunus mexicana

Coneflowers – Echinacea angustifolia, E. purpurea

Blackfoot daisy – Melampodium leucanthum

Ironweeds – Vernonia lindheimeri, V. baldwinii

Salvias – S. roemeriana, S. farinacea, S. penstemonoides, S. coccinea, S. texana, S. engelmannia

Damianita – Chrysactinia mexicana

Fall aster – Symphyotrichum oblongifolium

Bonus: many of these plants are included in our Watersaver Landscape Coupon that will be available in May.

Get Ready for May

In the meantime, draft your landscape plans, prepare your landscape beds and read up on native pollinators before planting in May.

When purchasing plants, ask your nursery if they’ve been treated with systemic insecticides. If so, avoid and seek out plants that have not been treated with insecticides.

If starting wildflowers from seed, purchase from distributors that provide locally appropriate mixes such as Native American Seed from Junction, TX. In addition to being great resources and invaluable land stewards, they offer seed of individual flower species as well as mixes, try the “Bee Happy” mix or the “Apache Plateau” mix.

Another great resource is the Pollinator Partnership website. Under the ‘Planting Guides’ tab you can enter your zip code to view a list of recommended pollinator plants for your area.

Also important to note are the nesting requirements of native bees. Carpenter bees nest in dead wood, miner bees nest in the ground and mason bees nest in hollow stems of vegetation. Bumblebees may nest in large, native bunchgrasses such as big bluestem, little bluestem, Lindheimer’s muhly, gulf muhly, eastern gamagrass, or yellow Indian grass, to name a few. Include these grasses in your garden to help the benevolent bumblebee.

Bumblebees may also nest in abandoned animal burrows in the ground and can be present in colonies of a few hundred. You can purchase or create solitary bee houses made of groupings of hollow-stemmed vegetation. If possible, leave standing dead trees, known as snags, to encourage carpenter bee nesting. However, don’t compromise your safety by leaving a standing dead tree over or near your house as it could potentially fall and harm someone.

Now that you are a pollinator expert, do your part and make your garden prime real estate for these fuzzy, buzzy critters and let SAWS help you do it with the Watersaver Landscape Coupon!

Cool Bee Facts

Native bees are much more efficient at pollinating crops than European honeybees. But native bees are not easily domesticated like the European honeybee due to their nesting requirements. This makes them difficult to utilize in large-scale agriculture.

75 percent of flowering plants worldwide require animals such as hummingbirds, bees, wasps, beetles, butterflies, moths and bats for pollination.

There are about 4,000 species of bees in the United States; Texas has several hundred species within its boundaries.

90 percent of bee species are solitary, meaning they do not live in hives like the non-native European honeybee or any of the native bumblebees.
Native bees are typically non-aggressive. Some may sting if they feel their nest is threatened.

Native bees are highly efficient pollinators as they exhibit a foraging behavior called flower constancy. This means they visit the same species of flower for extended periods of time, this increases the opportunities for pollination.

About Comal Master Gardeners:

Texas Master Gardener Comal County is a non-profit, educational-and-charitable association working with the AgriLife Extension to improve gardening skills throughout the community. Program objectives are implemented through the training of local volunteers known as Master Gardeners. The organization collaborates with AgriLife Extension to conduct youth and community education, establish and maintain demonstration gardens, and provide speakers. Master gardeners work with special audiences in the community (4-H horticultural clubs, Junior Master Gardener groups, schools, and others) for youth and community outreach of a horticultural nature. The group also recruits and educates new Master Gardener candidates for effective volunteering.

Q&As: Comal Master Gardeners and Interns answer questions for free from 8:45 to 11:45 a.m. Wednesday mornings at the Ask-a-Master Gardener Help Desk, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service Office, 325 Resource Drive, New Braunfels, Texas, (830) 620-3440.

For additional information contact Amanda Edwards, at ask@comalmastergardeners.org.

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