Bright green leaves, flowers, birds, sunshine, rain… but spring wouldn’t truly be spring without the soft humming of bees.
When people speak of bees, they are thinking of honey bees, according to Brent Hanson, but there are many more important species in our Northwoods, and they deserve our attention and respect.
“Native bees and wasps, bumblebees and other ground-nesting species-they are all important pollinators,” he says. “Besides vegetable gardens and fruit trees, there is a vast array of native plants that rely on these insects for pollination.
“We are losing our biodiversity,” he adds. “In the lower 48 states, 95 percent of our land is no longer natural. Roads, agriculture, urban and suburban growth…all this has changed or destroyed most of the natural areas.”
After 30 years as a practicing horticulturist, Brent has developed a passion for native plants. He has devoted much of his volunteer time, as well as time at his own business, Hanson’s Garden Village, to convincing property owners of the importance of restoring natural ecosystems, for which native bees perform a vital function.
Bees have been in the news recently because they seem to be in big trouble. Beekeepers report increasing deaths of whole hives of honey bees, which has alarmed many ecologists and food industry experts.
“There are theories about it,” says Brent. “Some people have even blamed cell phones and cell towers. A likely culprit is a pesticide called imidocloprid. It’s found in 40 percent of retail products, popular because it’s safe for humans and pets. It gets right into the plant and is highly effective on pests.”
Unfortunately, such poisons don’t discriminate when it comes to beneficial insects like bees. “Domesticated bees seem especially susceptible to problems,” says Brent.
“They are living in unnatural conditions, kind of like chickens in factories, overcrowded and even force-fed sugar at certain times of the year. They seem to be more vulnerable to mites (spider-like parasites) and viruses. With all of these problems, anything could be just that one last brick that’s too much.”
Wild bees are less prone to some of these stresses, but they have their own problems. “When we introduce plants that are not native, the native bees don’t always recognize them as a food source,” says Brent. “It’s better to have wild cherry and plum trees and native wild flowers that they can use.”
Another way to encourage beneficial bees is to put up a “house” for them to lay eggs. “We’ve been experimenting with some ideas for the last few years,” he says. “One of our native species, the Mason bee, lays eggs in holes made in trees by woodpeckers. One interesting thing is that the depth of the hole helps determine the sex of the larvae. So having variety in the bee house, we think, promotes a healthy mix.”
Two kinds of houses are available at Hanson Village, located just outside Rhinelander on Cty. G, past Nicolet College. One is a simple block of wood with various holes drilled into all four sides. Among the displayed houses is one that was used last year that has several of the holes “plugged” by mud that the bees have made using dirt and their own saliva.
Another house is constructed completely of recycled materials. The frame of old barn board is filled with sections of hollowed stems of Japanese knotweed, a non-native invasive species that is on the “hit list” of dangerous plants in the Northwoods.
“We dry out the stems and make sure there are no seeds attached,” says Brent. “They are similar to bamboo, and the sections of various diameter and depth are perfect for the Mason bee.”
Brent points out that there are many ways to make houses for bees. “I’m not just interested in selling our bee houses here; any way that people can encourage bees in their neighborhoods is a good thing. There are plenty of websites out there to research ideas.”
For the many ground-nesting bees, including the bumblebee, Brent has more advice. “These species won’t nest in your lawn; you need to leave some areas free to grow up in long grass and weeds. Those ‘messy corners’ are invaluable cover for bees.”
Brent does run into some people who don’t like the idea of bees flying around their gardens. “People with severe allergies, I can understand,” he says. “They know not to stand under basswood or fruit tree when they’re in blossom.”
But native bees rarely sting, he says. “They’re not like hornets; you really need to hit them or step on them to provoke a sting. They would prefer to just avoid you.”
And another thing to remember, according to Brent, is that even things we don’t like are important. “Everything fits together,” he says. “It was discovered recently that deer flies, which are so annoying to us, are relied on by many bird species for their survival. Our bees fulfill a vital function.”
There are many native plants that one can add to any landscape that will encourage bees, according to Brent. “If I had to name just one, it would be monarda fistulosa, or wild bee balm, that blooms for a long time,” he says. “I’ve seen many different bees attracted to that, and even hawk moths that come out at night or on cloudy days.”
The Hanson’s staff has all kinds of advice to offer on establishing a native landscape. “If you have a half-acre of lawn that you want to stop mowing, that’s great. There are some great plants out there that are Wisconsin or Midwest natives,” he says. “But we have to remember that we are not on a prairie here. Our natives include more woodland plants and shrubs.”
Experts don’t recommend digging native plants in the wild for transplant to another area, says Brent. “For one thing, trying to pull the roots out of woodland soil hardly ever works. The plant will, most likely, not survive. Most conservationists now agree that even knowledgeable people can do damage and diminish natural stands of native plants,” he explains. “Unless you are literally standing in front of the bulldozer that is about to tear apart the ground, they recommend leaving the native plants where they are.”
In contrast, buying seeds or native plants that are specifically propagated for transplant can be a rewarding experience, says Brent, as long as you follow a few simple rules. “We recommend planting several varieties in a small, fenced area. Without fencing, deer are likely to come along for a taste and literally rip the plants right out of the ground.”
After two growing seasons, when plants are well established, they’re “toughened up,” he adds, not soft and easy for the deer to eat. Then the fence can be moved and more native plants added.
A few petunias by the doorstep are great, of course, but Brent hopes that people will begin to understand the importance of reestablishing native plants wherever possible. “Almost all of the annual flowers out there are not suitable food sources for bees. It’s actually quite selfish… you are taking up space in nature with something that has eye appeal for you, but can’t be used by anything else in nature.”
So, while sitting inside during this early spring weather, Brent hopes that more Northwoods property owners will dream about and plan for native plants in their yards with happy, busy bees buzzing all around.
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander.