Shopping for bees

Shopping for bees

This might be a familiar quandary: You’ve wandered into your favorite nursery, looking for the best and brightest blooms of the season. You can picture how lovely a color combination of magenta and white will look in your garden, and you’ve loaded up your wagon with plants. Then you remember your intention of building a more pollinator-friendly habitat in your garden. Uncertainty sets in. Have you made the best choice?

Sometimes it’s hard to keep it all straight:  Do bees prefer visiting yellow, pink, orange or purple flowers? Would butterflies enjoy a floral combination of red, white and blue? Which fancy new cultivars can provide a food source, or must they all be avoided? Do any seasonal annuals attract pollinators? Which perennial plants appeal to the widest range of wildlife?

Researching pollinator-friendly plants beforehand always comes in handy, but this will do in a pinch: Just shop for the bees. Set aside your preconceptions and wander up and down every aisle. Notice which flowers attract the most bees, and whether they seem to be preferred by one genus of bee or attract many shapes and sizes. Observe whether the butterflies have joined them. You might have to peer closely. Some bees, wasps, moths and butterflies are quite small.

Shopping for bees instead of flowers can open you up to a whole new range of possibilities. That’s how a collection of pentas plants ended up in my garden. I generally avoid annual bedding plants and gravitate toward tall and lanky perennials. But I stopped in my tracks when I found hanging baskets of pentas literally crawling with bees. I purchased one, broke apart the plants and plopped them into my front garden. They did not disappoint. I find bumble bees visiting the pentas on a daily basis.

Shopping for bees can also answer questions you have about the suitability of cultivars for pollinators. Experts frequently advise avoiding the new hybrids and cultivars that you won’t find in nature when it comes to gardening for pollinators, and for good reason. Many could be ignored by pollinators or end up useless to caterpillars that need a food source. Without those food sources, the pollinator life cycle can’t continue and the population in the garden will decline. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ever enjoy the newest plants to hit the garden center. If a beautiful red-stemmed sedum is crawling with bees at the local nursery, you can feel confident that the bees will find it at home.

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