Garden Designers Roundtable: Why Can’t We Be Friends

For this month’s topic on Garden Designers Roundtable, instead of focusing on inviting nature into your garden, I would like to explore accepting the nature that is already there.  In this case, I’m talking about bees.  Their buzzing should be music to your ears, not a signal to start flailing your arms around and running for cover.  It’s time  those humble bees got some lovin’.  But first, some knowledge, understanding and hopefully acceptance.  

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Agastache is the #1 bee magnet in my garden

As a landscape designer, many of my clients request a garden full of color and fragrance, a combination of flowering trees, shrubs and perennials that will bloom all season long.  But then something weird happens.  In the next breath I hear, ‘And I don’t want any of those plants that attract bees’.  Huh!?!  

From talking with other landscape designers, I’ve found my clients are not particularly unique and educating clients that bees are in fact beneficial is an ongoing issue for many.  Here’s a little secret… you want bees in your garden.  Bees are a sign of a healthy garden.  But man, do bees have a PR problem.  Maybe they need a new agent, perhaps an exciting FB page or a major Twitter campaign.  Something, anything, to let gardeners know BEES ARE GOOD.  

Like almost everyone else, I have a story of being stung when I was a kid.  Mine involves a late night game of hide & seek… someone steps on a nest…lots of shouting …tearing off of clothes…crying for my mom…calamine lotion… Luckily, my friends and I were fine.  Like most people, when I get stung by a bee, it’s a minor annoyance.   I understand not everyone is so fortunate.  For some, bee stings are serious and possibly deadly.  But for most people, the benefits of inviting bees into their garden far outweigh the ouch-factor.  

Ornamental Oregano is another bee favorite in my garden.

So, to do my part to promote the acceptance of bees in home gardens, I decided to talk to an expert, Dr. Gale Ridge, PhD. from the Connecticut Agriculture and Experimental Station in New Haven, CT.  Dr. Ridge is an expert on true bugs – including bees.  She generously shared lots of information on bees and tips on how to act around bees that I would like to share with you.   

Bee Basics

- ‘Bees’  is actually a catch-all phrase for wasps and bees.  One of the easiest ways to tell the two apart is that bees are hairy and wasps are not. 

- Bees are generally not aggressive.  And they’re vegetarians.  They search out nectar because it is a source of energy.  (Wasps are predatory and carnivorous.)  

- Bees are usually so busy nectaring, they probably don’t even notice you and will not bother you.  Unless you start waving your arms around trying to swat them away!  

- Bees are not confrontational.  Stinging is a result of the bee defending itself because it thinks it’s in dire peril – from you (see above)!  

- Not all bees sting.  Only female bees have a stinger.  

- Honeybees live for about 3 – 6 weeks.  They can fly over 5,000 miles to get enough nectar to produce one pound of honey.  

- Honeybees typically don’t venture farther than a 1/4 mile from their hive.  

- Here in Connecticut, we typically begin to see bees in May.  But we can see them as early as March or April if there’s a nectar source for them.  

- Bees don’t see color the same way we do.  They ‘see’ a UV light reflection so colors that reflect UV light the best, like yellow, tend to attract bees.  

- Honeybee and bumblebee colonies do not die over the winter (wasps do), they just go dormant.  That’s why you’ll typically see bees in the spring about 6 weeks before you see wasps.  

‘Observe Don’t Interfere’

If you, or a loved one, is afraid of bees, Dr. Ridge urges the best approach to coexisting with bees is to ‘observe not interfere’.  Leave the bees alone, don’t mess with them.  I can attest to that approach.  I have lots of bee-enticing perennials planted right near my terrace and I’ve never been stung.  I just sit quietly and watch – and take photos!  

I asked Dr. Ridge about the types of flowers that are most likely to attract bees.  She told me that while no flowers are really off-limits, bees are most attracted to flowers with lots of available nectar.  You’ve seen them, the garden floozies who are just flaunting what they have to offer – agastache, daisies, honeysuckle and monarda to name a few.   

Flowers that conceal their nectar a bit better, typically double flowers, are not as enticing.  Those straight-laced, buttoned up girls like chrysanthemums, dahlias, marigolds, and peonies are generally not as attractive to bees.  

Still not convinced you can accept all that buzzing and nectaring in your garden?  Maybe it will help to know that the same flowers that entice bees, also attract these…  

Peaceful co-existence...a butterfly and bee nectaring together on Echinacea.

To read what my fellow Roundtablers have to say about the topic of Inviting Nature In, simply click on the links below:

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN
Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA
Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX
Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In the Garden : Los Altos, CA
Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

43 thoughts on “Garden Designers Roundtable: Why Can’t We Be Friends

  1. Great article. I really don’t understand why people are so afraid of bees. Even those who aren’t allergic seem to be offended by them. Don’t they realize without bees we have no food! Personally I was very happy to recently discover we are hosting a bee’s nest under our shed. Makes getting the firewood somewhat difficult but really just a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things.

    • Marguerite, I agree that if more people realized how important bees are to our everyday lives they would become more tolerant. I’m glad to hear you look at the bee’s nest as a minor inconvenience and haven’t taken steps to remove it.

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  6. I had to laugh when I read your clients’ wishes to not plant those darn plants that attract bees! I hear that all the time and I just cringe inside….

    Great post, and beautiful photos!

    (My daughter is very allergic to all beestings and has been going through 4 years of monthly bee venom injections and is FINALLY okay when stung (which happened last month). As a designer it’s been very hard for me to keep lavender and rosemary (among other favorite plants ) out of my garden and am so glad I can now plant away!)

    • Rebecca, I’m glad to hear your daughter’s therapy is a success and that you’ll be able to expand your personal plant palette. For those of us who are not allergic to bees, it’s easy to forget how serious a simple sting can be.

  7. Debbie, what a wonderfully helpful post. I have gotten that too, and it is so hard to educate people who have decided they just don’t like bugs or bees of any kind.

    I think your post goes a long way to helping people rethink their feelings on bees. I love the picture of the bee with the butterfly! And I’m totally snickering at your description of those “straight-laced, buttoned-up girls”. LOL. Love it.

    • Gen, I’m glad you got a laugh from my post. I think you’e right that many people just assume bees = bad without really thinking about why they feel that way. When I first started gardening, way back when, I felt the same way. Now I can’t imagine a garden that isn’t full of bees and other beneficial insects. And I do sometimes still marvel at how I can walk in between the agastache that is buzzing with bees and not even be noticed!

  8. I love watching bees at their busy work—they’re just so industrious. But most of all, I love listening to them! I have a garden bench that’s right under an apricot tree. When the tree’s in bloom and full of bees the sound is just mesmerizing. It’s my favorite sign of spring. Thanks for the informative post (did not know that about the color yellow!!).

    • Jocelyn,

      Your bench under the apricot tree sounds like heaven. I didn’t realize that about yellow either since purple seems to be a favorite color in my garden.

  9. You make so many good points here. It is really about people understanding that what they fear need not hurt them and certainly will not do so knowingly. Would that man could say that!
    Best Wishes

  10. “Nectaring” is such a peaceful-sounding word. Who could object to an insect that principally nectars? Your post taught me a number of facts about bees that I did not know. Thanks for making the case for bees. I hope people will take your advice to heart.

    • Pam, Nectaring does sound harmless, doesn’t it? And it is if we’d just leaves the poor bees alone. I’m glad to know you picked up a few bee facts from my post.

  11. My grandaughter is terrified of bees.We are slowly convincing her that standing still is more effective than wild flailing of arms. Our garden is wildlife certified so bees,bugs,and a wide range of “critters” are the norm. Watching her has given me new insight into clients though…

    • Luise, That may be a losing battle if your granddaughter is anything like my sons were when they were young. No amount of reasoning could make them remain calm in the presence of bees. It’s a long process but one it sounds like you’re having some success with. Good luck.

  12. Great research, Debbie. You provide a ton of really good info here. I think anyone who has established a garden for another person has heard the “but I don’t want bees,” comment. So much of what we do involves educating others – gardeners and non-gardeners alike – on harms and benefits. Now that the bee decline has received more press, the buzz about thier benefits is becoming more positive. Expect a shout-out from me.

    • Joene, I’m glad you found the post helpful. The Ag Center in NH really is a great resource for CT gardeners. And Dr. Ridge couldn’t have been more helpful.

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  14. Great post Debbie! You have a knack for finding great information and providing it in a thoughtful and entertaining manner. I also hear the “I don’t want bees around” request, and no amount of information changes those minds.

    I have a relative who typifies your flailing description, running all over, gathering up the children and retreating to the house when hearing or seeing bees and wasps. Too funny!

    • Thanks Scott. That means alot coming from you. I think we all run into the ‘no bees’ clients, and sometimes we’re successful with the education and sometimes not. It’s all about baby steps…

  15. Debbie, this is an terrific post! I have a feeling garden designers all over the country were nodding their heads when you talked about clients wanting a garden filled with flowers…but not bees. I may borrow some of your “sound bites” the next time I run into this.

  16. Great post. I was surprised that the honeybees like the Monarch butterflies born in the fall will live longer or until the spring. I am so lucky to have a wild honeybee hive next to my house in an old Rock Maple. I have been very fortunate to capture their swarms. It is a joy having so many bees in the garden. ;>)

    • Carol, While I hadn’t thought about it before, I guess it makes sense that honeybees born in the fall have a longer lifespan since the hive goes dormant in the winter. You are indeed fortunate to have a hive in your garden and the bees are fortunate to have choosen your garden as a home since you appreciate them and won’t have them ‘removed’. BTW – I love your blog, the photos of your monarch butterflies are amazing!

  17. Hi Debbie,
    I enjoyed your post and photos. I like to post photos of bees and other insects feeding near each other to show how peaceful they are. I also like to observe this off camera. Since I started blogging, I have learned that you can sometimes get quite close to bees without them minding. When one flies toward me looking irritated, I back off and find something else to photograph. In my last post, I talked about the neighbor boy asking me if I was afraid of bees, and wondering if I’ve ever been stung when I get so close to them.

    Bees and butterflies are some of my best friends.

    • Corner Garden Sue, Yes, bees are very easy to photograph, even for an inexperienced photographer like myself. It sounds like you have the right attitude about being around them – do no harm. How great that you’re able to help a young neighbor realize bees are good and should be respected, not feared. I’m heading over to your blog to read the full text of your post. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  18. You really have good points in your article and I totally agree on you. If only people can realized that without bees we have no food. I just hope that they can realize this as soon as possible to make some of them take care some honey bees in the a garden. I am also taking care of one in my garden and my veggies are really awesome. They are very healthy and without planting a new plant there are always many mystery plants and that grows some new veggie plant.

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  20. You have good points on your post! If only many people make articles like yours there surely come a time that more readers will come to realize something after they read posts like this. I have honey bees in my mango tree and they really look dangerous. But as long as you don’t touch them they will mean no harm to you.

  21. Great article, Debbie! Most native bees do not sting, so unless you’ve got an escaped honey bee colony near you you should be ok. Native bees can pollinate our whole vegetable garden plus our flowering shrubs, perennials, and our wildlife gardens. And, what’s a garden without butterflies?

    • Fascinating! I had no idea most native bees don’t sting. I guess there really is no reason for bee-phobs to flap your arms around your body like a lunatic when there’s a bee around.

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