Hero Image

Marin IJ Articles

Planting natives creates 'sweet bee-garden'

  • Barbara J. Euser
  • Recently I was given a booklet entitled "The Bee Pastures," a reprint of Chapter 16 of "The Mountains of California," written by John Muir in 1894. Muir described California as "one sweet bee-garden throughout its entire length, north and south, and all the way across from the snowy Sierras to the ocean." He complained that "plows and sheep have made sad havoc in these glorious pastures" and deplored the large-scale cultivation of crops such as alfalfa and citrus that replaced the rich diversity of native plant life he had observed throughout the state.

    In the past 125 years, the situation has become worse.
    Honey bees and native pollinators, including butterflies and hummingbirds as well as solitary bees that do not produce honey, are responsible for pollinating most fruit and vegetable crops. Bees pollinate 100 percent of California's valuable almond crop. But as most people are now aware, honey bees have recently been suffering from colony collapse disorder (CCD) and native pollinators have been decimated by the indiscriminate use of pesticides and loss of habitat.
    As domestic gardeners, we can play a role in re-creating Muir's "sweet bee-garden" in our own small corners of Marin County by planting the native species of flowers and shrubs that provide pollen and nectar for pollinators. Muir noted that the chain of blooming plants continued throughout the year, and that is a goal to strive for in our gardens.
    He noted violets and numerous Asteraceae, which have flowers composed of clusters of flowers, blooming in February. In March, claytonia, calandrinia, white gilia and taller yellow composites bloom; in April, he observed the greatest height of bloom with a large variety of flowers; in May, lilies and California buckwheat. Muir refers to the summer months of June, July and August as "a winter of dry heat," when many native plants become dormant. But in October, plants such as tarweed (Hemizonia species), asters and buckwheats bloom and provide sources of pollen and nectar that last through December.
    Fall-blooming flowers are especially important to bees because the bees that are born in the fall are physiologically different from spring and summer-born bees. Fall-born bees may live for as long as six months (as opposed to the seven-week life span of spring and summer bees), if they are well nourished.
    To provide the greatest benefits to pollinators, our gardens should include a variety of flowers in different sizes and shapes, so bees of different sizes and shapes can obtain pollen and nectar. Flowers should be grouped together, ideally in plots about 4 feet across. Blue, purple, white and yellow flowers seem to be the most attractive to bees. Happily, many native plants are also low-maintenance and require a minimum of water.
    In my garden, natives including California poppies, mint, Santa Barbara daisies, ceanothus, salvias, zauschneria, verbena, monkeyflower, woodland strawberries and lilies, attract our own honey bees and many solitary bees as well. Mediterranean natives that thrive in our climate also provide excellent forage. A large patch of Spanish lavender hummed with bees in March. Now that those blossoms have faded, two large Salvia clevelandii bushes with their purple whorls of flowers are proving most attractive. Rosemary bushes and grevillea, which also thrive in our garden, are favorites of bees.
    Other native plants attractive to native bees include asters, button bush, California redbud, columbine, lupine, phacelia, sunflower, manzanita, wild rose and willow. Non-natives include basil, cosmos, hyssop, marjorum and pincushion flowers.
    For more information and more complete lists of plants that attract pollinators, check the Web sites of the Xerces Society (www.xerces.org) and the Pollinator Partnership (www.pollinator.org). To obtain a copy of Muir's "The Bee Pastures," contact the Partners for Sustainable Pollination at http://pfspbees.org.