Ah, Spring…Clover growing underfoot, blissful 82 degree days with only mild humidity, the smell of orange blossoms lingering in the air, and, for me, bee stings. Then the mad rush for Benadryl and baking soda or toothpaste in a vain attempt to minimize swelling.
Every time I get stung, there are varying degrees of annoyance. I can usually tell within minutes if I'm going to swell or not. If the sting is intense, then I will puff up like an inflated latex glove, but if the sting is just annoying, the discomfort will wear off in less than an hour. My mentor and friend, JP the Beeman, is an excellent beekeeper, but he is, quite possibly, a bad influence for me. He's been working with bees for years and rarely wears a suit and veil unless the bees prove to be angry. He doesn't wear protective gear unless, he claims, "I get stung ten times."
JP has a youtube channel with more than 100 videos, many of the swarms he's caught in the last few seasons. Here's my favorite, where he catches a swarm that landed on an SUV in a parking lot. He scoops through the bees with his bare hands searching for the queen, and even gets underneath the vehicle with a flashlight in his mouth, still scooping handfuls of bees, and then dropping them into the super with his bare hands!
Here's another video he took, this one in my backyard in October:
Although he doesn't say anything, I think JP's laughing at me when I even bother to put on gloves to work the bees in his presence. Actually in the video above, toward the end of our bee session where we combined a weak hive with a strong hive, JP edited out the last part of the video where I'm wearing the suit. I put on the bee suit because I got stung twice, but in all fairness it does make me look like I'm about to go clean up an oil spill or something.
So, bolstered by a few successful days without the encumbrance of the hot, visibility-restricting bee suit, I thought I could be a regular bee whisperer. You know, just me and the ladies, chatting about springtime, drones and work. But of course, that vision fell flat again, as a bee got stuck in my hair and stung me on the head yet again.
So, I've decided that I'm going to try to keep my bees happy by planting lots and lots of bee-friendly flowers this year.
I have always been obsessed with growing vegetables in any scrap of front or back yard that provided even the faintest sliver of sunshine. When I was growing up, my aunt owned a flower shop, full of hybrid flowers, bred for indoor arrangements, and therefore bred to have less pollen, and no messy nectar. All the flowers I knew were pretty, but clean, sterile, and scentless. I looked at flowers as garden free-loaders, a waste of space that could be used to produce edibles and I could buy them if necessary. But as I've become a better vegetable gardener, I have gradually learned that to get the best vegetables, you have to attract pollinators to fertilize them. And the best way to attract pollinators is to plant flowers that they like to visit.
Unpollinated flowers won't set seed or fruit, which means no food as a result of your labors, so even if you don't keep bees, or don't even like them, attracting pollinators of all kinds (birds, butterflies and some other insects are helpful too) is beneficial to a garden.
The best flowers for pollinators are the old fashioned kind that produce lots of nectar and pollen, along with Mediterranean Herbs. For gorgeous, easy-to-grow annual flowers that the pollinators will also enjoy, feel free to scatter seeds of Zinnia, Cosmos, and Sunflowers. For perennial bee-friendly flowers that will come back every year, plant asters, salvias and milk weed, an interesting plant that also attracts the Monarch Butterfly.
One of the best ways to ensure that honey bees are happy in your yard is to stock it full of Mediterranean herbs. Trailing rosemary, borage, thyme, anise hyssop, bee balm, and lavender are all plants that delight bees with their aromatic nectar and lots of pollen. Luckily, these herbs are a pleasant addition to your garden whether you want to attract pollinators or not, because of their immeasurable value in the kitchen, making every dish taste better.
Finally, another way to encourage bees and other beneficial insects is to make sure you don't use harmful pesticides. They usually aren't selective and can kill beneficial insects just as readily as the ones you wish to eliminate. For a more detailed list of plants to attract bees and other pollinators, visit www.themelissagarden.com and start planting.