Native Plants Keep Bees Buzzing

Bumblebees on cup plant, a Minnesota native.

Across the nation, an epidemic is underway. Beekeepers are losing 30-50% of their hives each year as the colonies collapse due to disease, lack of habitat, and pesticide applications. Last year bee keepers in Iowa lost 70% of their colonies; at Blake School in Minneapolis, a student initiative to raise and learn about bees came to a screeching halt last September when 60,000 bees died overnight due to a pesticide application near the school. Since 1945, honeybee populations in the U.S. have declined from 4.5 million to only 2 million today and many scientists and beekeepers fear that honeybees might be on the brink of disappearing altogether. Without bees to pollinate our almonds, strawberries and apples, many of our favorite foods will disappear from grocery stores. The cost of pollinating by hand will make melons, cranberries and pumpkins into delicacies more expensive than truffle oil.

Neonicotinoids, a class of persistent, systemic insecticides used to pretreat crops and garden store plants, are partly to blame for rampant bee deaths. When applied to plants before they start growing, the entire plant will express the pesticide when it is full grown, killing pest insects and pollinating insects alike. According to Lex Horan of Pesticide Action Network North America, 94% of all corn seeds sold in the U.S. are pretreated with neonicotinoids and many of the largest garden center retailers are pretreating their flowers (and sometimes even native plants) as well.

An equally big problem for bees and other pollinators, however, is the disappearance of native plants and natural habitat from our landscapes. There are 250 native bee species in Minnesota and 140 species of butterflies. Pollinators have co-evolved with native plants over thousands of years and rely on these plants for both food and shelter. Loss of habitat is impacting our native bees and butterflies as much as honeybees. Last year’s overwintering population of monarch butterflies was the smallest ever, and other Minnesota butterflies and bees are vanishing as well.

One way people can help is by incorporating native plants into their yards and gardens. Monarch butterflies, for example, lay their eggs on milkweed plants, so planting common milkweed, marsh milkweed or butterfly weed will attract them to your yard and will provide a vital food source for the monarch caterpillars. Honeybees are attracted to purple, white and yellow flowers like asters and black-eyed susans. A new book by Heather Holm, Pollinators of Native Plants, is an excellent resource with colorful photos cataloging dozens of Minnesota native plants and the pollinating insects they attract.

Native plants provide other benefits as well. Deep-rooted prairie plants, shrubs and trees hold soil in place and help rainwater to soak into the ground. Extensive root systems limit lakeshore erosion from waves and runoff and also prevent streambanks and riverbanks from slumping. Many native plants are well suited for raingardens and can also help to break up compacted soil. Preserving native shrubs in wooded areas helps to keep buckthorn from invading as well.

Blue Thumb – Planting for Clean Water is a partnership of more than 60 public entities, landscaping companies, and native plant growers working together to promote the use of native plants for wildlife and water quality. Search to find native plant retailers in your area, as well as landscape designers and installers that are experienced in working with native plants. The website also has a handy “plant selector tool” that will generate a list of native plants best suited for your yard or planting project. In addition, the Landscape Revival – Native Plant Expo and Market is an opportunity to learn about native plants and pollinators, as well as purchase plants from twelve local growers. The Landscape Revival will be held Saturday, June 7 from 9am-3pm at the Rainbow Foods Community Pavilion, 1201 Larpenteur Ave. in Roseville.