Planting for Bees

There’s a lot of information out there about planting for butterflies and hummingbirds but there’s less available about planting for bees. I’m not sure why that is–perhaps because until recently we were only thinking about honeybees, which are a managed species, and not perhaps about our hundreds, if not thousands of native bee species.

Thankfully we’re coming around now. In the last few years there have been a couple of good books on the subject both on planting for bees (which you can see here –and no, I am not and Amazon affiliate; I get nothing for this reference!)
and gardening for bees.

One of the best resources for bees is the Xerxes Society. You’ll notice the first book I recommended is published by them. They’re quite reputable and a great source for all thing “bee” related. The publish great Pollinator Conservation Resources for North America––I’ve linked to my own regional guide for the northeast.

The list of plants is not something that one might readily find in every garden center. These are native plants (in fact, the boneset (#8)comes up naturally in my yard and the Spoiler keeps referring to it as “that white weed.”) However, some, like milkweed, tradescantia and mountain mint are certainly readily available now and can easily be obtained many places. Lists for different regions will of course have different plants.

Another handy guide is to Bumblebees. I thought (and still do think) that bumblebees are about all the same. As much as I don’t have a fear of bees, I am not hanging around to examine their stripes! But it was really instructive learn that there are so many native to my region.

Of course it goes without saying that planting for bees requires you to forego pesticides as much as possible. If you must use pesticides, Xerxes has guides for how to do so to maximize safety to bees and other invertebrates.

Finally some tips that I find handy: first, try to have something in bloom from the very earliest days of spring to the last days of fall. I don’t worry about whether these plants are native plants or not, although of course it’s nicer if they are. One of the first plants that blooms in my yard is a shrub called japanese andromeda (pieris andromeda). It has clusters of fragrant white lily of the valley like flowers and when they open in late March, the bumblebees are there.

One of the last things blooming in my garden is a stand of goldenrod planted by the birds (or the “yellow weed” as the Spoiler has dubbed it.) Again, it blooms up through early November, maybe and as long as it has flowers, it has bees of every size, from bumblebees and honeybees down to the little bees that I love but have no idea of their names.

In between I try to have something blooming, even if it’s just hydrangeas. And the bees come, even to hydrangeas–again, they’re non-native, but they make ME happy (and if the gardener’s happy, everybody’s happy!).

And of course, between the birds and the beneficial insects I rarely need to use an insecticide. If I do, I try to do it as late as possible in the evening–once the bees have left. And even then, I just use insecticidal soap–not that that wouldn’t harm a bee, which is why I wait until almost nightfall.

My last tip is to try to have some very shallow dishes of water for bees to sip from. Just be sure to change them daily so you don’t breed mosquitoes!

Finally, and people differ about this, but many of our native bees are ground nesting bees. Personally I have never been stung by these bees. I may have been lucky. I have even accidentally dug up their nests in early spring and escaped unharmed. After that, I was careful to mark the nesting spots and give them a wide berth while gardening later in the season.

If you aren’t feeling as confident about this, just be aware that native bees are ground nesters–and this includes bumblebees. So be observant while working in the garden (no pun intended).

Then, enjoy your bees!

Now That You’re Feeding Birds, Think About Counting Them

This will give you 4 days to think about whether you might want to be involved in the Great Backyard Bird Count–and no, you don’t technically need a “backyard” to participate. You can count birds anyplace you can watch–or even hear birds! People start their counts just after midnight on the first day (this year the first day of the count is February 15). I am presuming they are hearing owls. I am sleeping.

What’s the Great Backyard Bird Count (or GBBC, for short)? It’s a 4 day count, held every year over the Presidents’ Day weekend. You can find out more than I could ever tell you here, at the web site.

And it’s pretty much as easy as it sounds. You “count” birds (instructions for counting are at the web site, along with optional counting sheets) over the 4 day “count period (again, this year February 15-18) and submit those counts to the web site. Last year close to 3 million birds were counted.

Why do you want to do this? For one thing, it’s fun. You’d be surprised at the number of different birds you’ll see if you just sit still and look.

For a second, it’s remarkably low tech (despite the fact that you have to submit your results online). You have to sit still and look at nature for at least 15 minutes. When was the last time you did that? It’s almost like forest bathing through a window. It can be remarkably relaxing.

So get to the web site, read the instructions, and even if you don’t participate, at some point over the long weekend, get your favorite hot beverage, park yourself in front of a window (or better yet, outdoors if it’s nice enough to do so where you are!) and just watch nature for 15 minutes. You’ll be surprised how refreshed you are at the end of it.

Nesting Places for Birds

I’ve lived in my house 25 years. By now, I know where I am likely to find birds nests. Every so often one will surprise me–but for the most part, there are several trees–small trees–and shrubs where I know that I am likely to find birds needs if I just pay attention.

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I will always find at least one, if not two, American robin’s nest in my American dogwood (cornus florida). Interestingly enough, they also like the Japanese maple and the japanese holly–so it’s not an “american” thing.

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I will also find various other birds nesting in these topiary blue spruce we have. We have several (don’t blame me–I inherited them). They stay because they birds like them.

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The japanese holly is another inherited shrub that I tolerate because it’s good for the birds. As I mentioned in the last post, it’s wonderful shelter for them (it doesn’t berry–I don’t think we have enough sun) and they do nest in it so I am not likely to remove it even though it is a bit of an overgrown monstrosity.

As for other nesting places, I was foolish enough to think that you needed nest boxes. Silly me. We must have at least 10 pair of nesting birds on the property at any one time all summer long. I attribute that to providing habitat (and of course, no pesticides).

You saw 2 nest boxes in the dogwood. One is pretty much decorative. The other is a working wren house and it’s used every year. I fledge ( actually the wren parents fledge) at least 2 broods of baby wrens each year. And they get mighty irate if I try to garden underneath.

But the trees and shrubs are the true nesting stars. My bird population relies heavily upon them to perpetuate their future.

Giving Birds a Place to Shelter

So in talking about birding habitat–or any habitat for wildlife–we’ve already covered food and water. And if you think about it, all living things need these–you or I wouldn’t survive for longer than a week or so without sustenance.

We’d also have to find some sort of shelter for ourselves. Birds and other wildlife need to do the same.

And in just the same way that each of us chooses different types of dwellings, birds have surprisingly different requirements when it comes to “shelter.” (I will talk about “nesting,” or places to raise young, on Friday).

If there’s a hawk or other bird of prey after them, any sort of cover will do, of course. They will duck into a shrub, a thicket, a tree with branches near a trunk or even under a rock.

But if it’s winter and they need to shelter from cold winds, evergreens are better protection for this. Evergreens on the leeward side of a building are even better (away from the prevailing winds).

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These 2 pieris andromeda don’t look like much, but I have seen lots of finch, sparrows and cardinals sheltering here. It’s on the south side of my house. I suspect that my cardinals even nest here but I haven’t confirmed that.

Even ornamental grasses left standing can be protection–and can offer valuable seeds–in a pinch.

What’s important is to know the places where your birds do shelter and to try not to let things disturb them. On a cold day–or night–it costs them precious energy to fly. I try hard not to let my dog get too close my large evergreen hollies where I know that birds sometimes huddle for protection. I don’t want her flushing them out needlessly.(You’ll see these hollies in my post on nesting).

Take a look around your yard–or if you don’t have a yard, a park or other place you like to visit. Can you find the places where birds like to shelter?

Providing Water to Birds in Winter

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You saw the photo of my little backyard pond all frozen over–or almost frozen over–last Wednesday. Believe it or not, that’s one of the best ways for birds–and even the squirrels and the chipmunks that pop out of torpor on a warm day–to get water in winter.

Once that pond gets a nice crusty, ice covering, it’s a safe place for birds and small wildlife to approach the small open fountain for a drink.

Obviously when the pond is completely un-frozen, it’s not very wildlife friendly–at least not for drinking! I have witnessed birds flying through the bubbler fountain, but I haven’t seen any really try to drink from it. I did see a mourning dove try to sit on it though. That was funny. It knocked the whole pump/pump box right over!

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Until it gets really cold, I do try to keep these plastic bird baths filled and relatively clean. Once they freeze solid, all bets are off. The stone is to keep them from becoming airborne in our gusty winter winds. It also helps the smaller birds that don’t want to dunk, but merely drink, have a perch.

I haven’t talked about what elements you need to provide to give birds–or any wildlife–a place to survive. There are four and we’ve already covered two. Food is essential, as is water. I will cover the next, shelter, on Monday.

Feeding the Birds

I talked last Friday about how much I loved to feed the birds. There was a time–maybe 10 years ago–when I used to go through 80 pounds of bird seed a week! I really love bird watching and bird feeding.

But as with all things, nature less gotten a little less predictable, and my knowledge of wildlife has gotten better. Let me explain.

I used to think that bears did a thing called hibernation, meaning that they would go into a cave and sleep for a definite period of time–probably December until maybe early March. I know now that that’s not quite exactly right.

Bears–like chipmunks, if you have those where you are–do a thing called torpor. In case you don’t have chipmunks, let me explain what they do. Chipmunks have the amazing ability to quasi-hibernate–to go into their burrows, sleep through cold periods, and if we get a nice balmy day, they pop out and refresh themselves–maybe grab a bite to eat, run around and grab some fresh air– you get the idea. That’s torpor.

Surprisingly, wildlife biologists are learning that bears do just the same thing. Bears don’t take a 4 month nap. They’ll wake up intermittently and even pop out for a snack–and a bathroom break–and maybe even grab a bird feeder or two. Hence my recent aversion to feeding the birds.

But this doesn’t mean that I have to stop providing food for them (and no I don’t mean tossing a handful of seeds on the ground). There are plenty of berrying shrubs and trees with mast (nuts and seeds) that we have on our property that are already feeding our birds.

We have oaks (planted well before I moved to the property 25 years ago) that provide acorns for birds like blue jays and woodpeckers. Our pine trees provide cones with seeds for chickadees, titmice and nuthatches and nectar for hummingbirds. The American dogwood seeds are eaten by robins and starlings. And the crabapple is eaten by robins as well. Even the juniper berries are eaten by robins.

So you see that you don’t need a lot of plants–or exotic plants (in fact, plants native to your region are often best!)–to feed the birds. But you do need something that berries or makes seeds or nuts or acorns.

Next post I’ll talk about something that’s a little harder to achieve in winter–water.

It’s Full on Winter Here–Feed the Birds

I was a “birder” long before I was a gardener–or maybe sort of about the same time. If you click on the “Introduction” tab at the top of this blog, you’ll read that I’ve been gardening since I was 3, when I used to run ahead of my Dad’s push mower (many of you will be far too young to remember that mowers didn’t used to have engines–they were just a set of blades at the end of a long handles. You can still buy these “retro” mowers today). I would pick all the flowers–a type of viola called Johnny Jump Ups (again many folks consider them weeds, but I still love them) out of the lawn, “saving” them from the mower blades.

I also have fond memories of a small wooden bird feeder that my Dad hung in a sycamore tree in our backyard. We filled it with some sort of generic seed and backyards birds came. I don’t really recall having squirrel or chipmunk problems–maybe we did. And I know we didn’t have deer problems.

Even back then, I remember knowing the names of the birds–I was a little older by then, maybe first grade, so maybe 6 years old. And I still remember distinguishing between the house finches and the house sparrows (not terribly hard to do, except maybe for a first grader). My favorite was the bird that was then called the “slate colored” junco (it’s now called the “dark-eyed” junco).

Some things stay with you. Juncos (as I think of them because we really only have one kind here in the northeast) are still my favorite birds.

What’s a little more difficult is feeding them. When I was a kid, we didn’t even worry about deer, no less bears! Where I live now, it’s a wildlife bonanza! Just last weekend, a neighbor was showing me pictures of the neighborhood bobcat!

And while it’s just delightful to have all that wonderful wildlife in the neighborhood, I don’t want to attract it close to the house (or to create an “attractive nuisance” by feeding more than the birds.

So I have created habitat instead. Over the next few posts, I’ll talk about that, and show photos of what that looks like.

And, when I just can’t help myself (which happens less often now) I might toss a single handful of birdseed out on the ground, away from the house. That way, if something other than the birds come, it’s consumed quickly and they don’t get too used to it!