Gardening on the Planet

Common Gardening Practices That Hurt Bees


Bees forage on fall-blooming winter savory (Satureja montana).

Worldwide, there’s a growing awareness of the value of pollinators, which is heartening for those of us who love food and biological diversity. However, pollinator populations continue their noticeable decline, and recently several bee species have been listed or proposed as federal endangered species. Individual gardeners and property owners can help by finding alternatives to common gardening practices that hurt bees.

1.  Relying on pesticides
Pesticides is a general term that encompasses the more specific terms insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides. All three types of pesticides can hurt bees. Neonicotinoids (a class of insecticides) have been implicated in bee dieoffs, as have sprays targeted toward other insects (such as a recent incident that wiped out millions of bees in North Carolina). Fungicides have only been studied recently with respect to their effect on bees, but have been shown to weaken colonies. Herbicides don’t target bees directly but do kill their forage plants.

Alternatives: Rethink your landscape and its management to make pesticide use a last resort, not a part of your routine. Include diverse plants, a water source, and wild corners to foster a diverse spectrum of insects that will help keep each other’s populations in check through competition and predation. Create habitat for dragonflies, birds, toads, and bats — all ferocious insect predators.

2. Fall deadheading
Now is the season when many gardeners just want to clean up the dead stalks and seedheads. However, what people may view as messy leftovers from the summer garden are valuable habitat elements that provide food and shelter for many small creatures, including bees.

Alternatives: Keep your stalks and seedheads standing into very early spring. This will not only benefit your resident bees, but will give other insects and birds food through the winter, give larvae a place to develop into next year’s pollinators, and shelter hibernating garden helpers.

3. Removing fallen leaves
Bagging fallen leaves and sending them offsite can be a lot of work and a waste of a great garden resource, as well as eliminating habitat for beneficial critters. If you use a leafblower, it can be unhealthy and unpleasant for people as well.

Alternatives: Find ways to use your leaves as the great resource that they are in your garden. For moving leaves, use a rake on lawns and a broom for hard surfaces.

4. Bug zapping
Bug zappers kill every flying thing that is small enough and unlucky enough to run into them. They are not a smart choice for addressing problem insect populations; they may make your problem worse by killing off helpful insect predators such as dragonflies.

Alternatives: Remove habitat for problem insects near human-use areas of your landscape. Learn more about bees in order to reduce your chances of negative encounters; I recommend Eric Grissell’s fascinating, passionate, and surprisingly readable book Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in Gardens.

May we all learn to live in harmony with bees, soon enough to reverse their population decline and ensure future generations of human-bee cooperation. Happy gardening!

Posted by on October 5, 2016 at 4:16 pm, in the category Gardening on the Planet.
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6 responses to “Common Gardening Practices That Hurt Bees”

  1. Paul Grant says:

    Thanks Evelyn for this great and helpful resources. Advice like fall deadheading, bug zapping, and removing fallen leaves is truly an alternative to common gardening practices that hurt bees.

    This will remind others that they can beautify and maintain their garden and at the same time, taking care of the biological balance and diversity.

  2. ash says:

    I cut back my dead plant flowers just recently but I put them in a place that is sheltered that protects any nectar producers that may hatch there.

  3. marcia says:

    Thank you, Evelyn, for the nice compliment. I have to commend you, too, on the column.

    I usually just say “shear to the ground,” but “deadstalking” is catchy.

  4. Hi, Marcia. That was careless of me to use the word “deadheading” — which can mean just cutting off dead flowers so a plant can rebloom — when I really was talking about cutting down dead stalks of plants (deadstalking?). That is great that you are willing to take the trouble to help your plants produce more nectar as pollinators prepare for hibernating or migrating. Thanks for contributing more beauty and life to the world.

  5. Marcia says:

    Thank you for the article and links. Here in Maryland, I have close to 50 monarch caterpillars in my home right now, I continue to deadhead and fertilize my many nectar producers, so that when I release them, they have the sustenance they need to start their journey. Also, bees need to store up pollen and nectar to survive winter hibernation. So, I deadhead all the way through October. The ground is warm enough, the average high is 68 this month and the yard will remain in full bloom for the insects. Then, I stop deadheading and won’t clean up the yard as you have suggested.

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