- March 21, 2017
Spring gets many people thinking about planting and we are thrilled to hear you are interested planting for pollinators. In March 2017, Cheerios launched a marketing campaign focused on saving bees and generously offered to send people a free packet of wildflower seeds. An estimated 1.5 million people requested seeds in the first days of the project. Those seeds will be arriving in folks’ mailboxes over the next weeks prompting many to wonder, “What now?.”
First, you may have caught wind of a backlash against the seeds given away by Cheerios, which are the same generic easy-to-grow mix of seeds found in many wildflower packets across North America. This particular mix is from the seed company Veseys and includes 20 annuals and perennials meant to bloom all season long.
The mix includes Lavender Hyssop, Rockcress, New England Aster, Beeplant, Lance-Leaved Coreopsis, Plains Coreopsis, Dwarf Cosmos, Chinese Forget-Me-Not, Purple Coneflower, Aspen Daisy, California Poppy, Annual Gaillardia, Globe Gilia, Tidy Tips, Sweet Alyssum, Bergamot, Forget-Me-Not, Baby Blue Eyes, Corn Poppy, and Ohio Spiderwort. Some people are upset because many of these plants are not native to the regions (or even the continents) on which they are intended to be grown.
Potentially invasive plants have people worried because there is some evidence that in the right conditions a non-native plant can spread quickly in wild spaces and outcompete native plants, decreasing the overall biodiversity of an area and interrupting normal pollination of the native ecosystemopen_in_new. Invasivness is not a simple black and white issue, however, so it isn’t easy to outright condemn the planting of wildflower mixes across the board. It depends on where you are, the ability of your soil to support native species (sometimes highly urbanized areas have soil conditions not amenable to local flora), and your goals.
Successfully getting annual wildflowers to grow
You won’t see great germination from just scattering these in a field or lawn. They will likely be outcompeted by the plants that are already established there. You’ll need to prepare the ground by turning and breaking up the soil with a rake, removing other plants, and sprinkling the ground with water. The seeds in your packet will do best in a sunny area and once scattered, will need to be covered with a scant ¼ inch of soil. Keep the area moist.
if you really want to get down to business with bees, it may be best to look to regional mixes and natives.
When it comes to helping bees, there are some additional factors you might want to take into account when deciding whether to use a generic, non-native seed mix. For instance, many native bees show a preference for native plants (others are generalists) open_in_new. Some research also points out that we don’t know much about how well wildflower seed mixes perform compared to say, just leaving a section of your yard unmanaged to let whatever grows, grow open_in_new. Even early studies, however, back-up the claim that what works in one place, doesn’t necessarily work in another. Meaning, if you really want to get down to business with bees, it may be best to look to regional mixes and natives.
There is also research unveiling some of the natural connections native bees have with certain flowering plants, which produce secondary metabolite compounds in their pollen and nectar. When infested with parasites, the bees will seek out and drink from these specific native plants because the secondary metabolites help the bees fight off the parasitic infection by acting as “drugs.” (Read more about this interesting phenomenon) Such obscure evolutionary relationships are not well-understood, but there are enough cases of them being discovered, that planting native wildflowers for these “invisible” positive impacts may be a great step to take in support of pollinators. Below we connect you to our resources that provide specific native options, by region, that you might consider planting this spring alongside or instead of that nonspecific wildflower mix.
Although the Cheerios mascot is a honeybee, it is important to note that honeybees work alongside a diverse and impressive group of native bees (there are over 4,000 native bee species in North America alone) to pollinate our landscapes. Native bees currently perform an estimated $3 billion in pollinator services in North America annually. Not only are they more efficient pollinators of some plants open_in_new (resulting in increased seed and fruit yield open_in_new) they are increasingly viewed as an important ecological resource in agriculture in addition to managed honeybee colonies. The sheer diversity of native bees makes them more resilient to shifts in weather than monolithic, single-species honeybees open_in_new.
There is mounting evidence that populations of bees are not thriving. Unfortunately there is not one smoking gun, but instead, a complex “perfect storm” of factors putting negative pressure on our bees. Bees are susceptible to a number of interacting stressors. These range from dietary stresses (not being able to easily find reliable sources of nectar and pollen) to exposure to fungicides and insecticides which, in combination, amplify one another’s negative effects on bees. All together, these stressors impact bees’ ability to cope with both toxins, pathogens, parasites and environmental changes open_in_new.
A wildflower seed packet is a small first step, but if you are interested in putting your property to work for pollinators consider this list of actions:
1) Find some flowering plants native to your region using the Habitat Network’s Local Resources Tool.
Once there, download your pollinator planting guide–based on your ecoregion. This resource is flush with plants specific to your exact region.
What is an ecoregion?–find out in this article
2) Go Diverse.
With so many species of bees, you can bet different bees have different preferences of plants. Many of these preferences are based on the shape of the flower produced by a plant. Some flower shapes, like the lupine (Lupinus nanus) above, are so specialized that only certain bees–in this case larger bees with long tongues and big bodies that can push the flower petals out of the way–can get to the nectaropen_in_new. Diversity also helps ensure your bee garden has flowering plants all year round. You don’t just want June flowers, the ideal is to have flower blossoms during the whole growing season wherever you live because bees will be looking.
3) Go Big.
Bees have a strange and interesting habit of only visiting one flower species per trip out from the nest. This practice is known as “flower constancy” and it is a great reason to plant a bunch of the same plant in one location. You can imagine how much more efficient it is for a bee to visit a place with many flowers (check out that huge patch of gorgeous goldenrod (Solidago rugoso) in the image above), than just a few. A good rule of thumb, found to be attractive to bees, is to aim for a 3×3 foot patch of any one species. This kind of “patch” is almost impossible with a wildflower seed mix.
4) Stop Using Insecticides.
Broad-spectrum insecticides like organophosphates, carbamates, pyrethroids, and neonicotinoids will work on many types of insects at various stages of development. This also means they may kill valued and beneficial insects too, including bees, butterflies, and caterpillars. These are systemic insecticides that can persist for a long time, sometimes even contaminating pollen and nectar, killing pollinators that rely on these food sources long after the insecticide was applied. (Read more about insecticides and great alternatives)
5) Put up a native bee house.
Unlike the social, hive-nesting honeybees, solitary bees nest as individuals. Most are ground nesters like bumble bees and sweat bees, but many, namely mason bees and leafcutter bees, are cavity nesters. Cavity nesters lay their eggs in small holes–like those in wood made by birds and insects, or in dried hollow reeds or stems. They start by filling the back of the cavity with nectar and pollen then depositing an egg and sealing it with mud or chewed leaves in a mason-like fashion. A bee house is a simple and attractive addition to any yard or garden space that will provide habitat for solitary cavity-nesting bees. A bee house is simply an artificial nesting structure that mason bees, and other solitary bees, can use to lay their eggs. Ideally, a bee house provides a safe space away from predators, weather, and chemicals–all of which can interfere with a successful reproductive cycle. (Read more about adding this habitat feature to a garden near you)
6) Leave Exposed Earth.
Many native bees nest underground. Keep a part of your yard as bare ground to provide nesting habitat for native bees. (Read our article on some of our more common native ground-nesters, and learn some ways to support them)
7) Document Your Efforts With Habitat Network Citizen Science.
Lastly, as someone interested in helping save pollinators, we invite you to join our effort at documenting the kinds of actions and habitat you provide by creating a Habitat Network account and mapping your yard, school, office, or a favorite park. Your data helps us understand more about what people are doing to support wildlife and change the face of our collective landscaping.
Do you live in IL, IN, IA, ME, MA, MN, OH, VA, WI or Ontario, Canada? If so, consider the role you can play in helping to create habitat for the endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis). The USFWS can help.