MASTER GARDENER: Lawn to Legumes
By: Julie Wanous – Guest Columnist
Recently, I received information on a “Lawns to Legumes” class — offered in Rochester-for free! — on how to transform your lawn into a more bee-friendly one. As I am a hobby bee-keeper and always wanting to learn more about bees, I signed up for the class! Whether it explored honey bees or bees native to Minnesota, I was eager to learn from them as both species are important to our world.
While waiting for the class to begin, I paged through some of the many handouts available outside the classroom, finding that we’d be focusing on bees native to our region, more specifically the Rusty Patched bumblebee, Minnesota’s state bee! Through a joint effort, the
Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), Metro Blooms, and the non-profit Blue Thumb were able to offer this class. Though this was the only the second time it was presented, the sponsoring organizations expect to present 30 more classes over the next 3 years to create habitat for our native bees.
When we think of bees pollinating plants, quite often our mind goes directly to honey bees and the challenges they face with Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). In doing this, we don’t consider the numerous other pollinators important to our distinctive regions, such as our Rusty Patched bumblebee, which the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) lists as an endangered species.
With a single queen and female workers; the Rusty Patched bumblebee lives in colonies in the ground. Producing new queens and males in late summer, the colony necessitates a late-season food source. You can identify the bumblebee by it’s black head, and the males and workers bear a rusty patch on their backs, inspiring its name. If ever in doubt about any bee in your yard, there are several websites and apps available, including bumblebeewatch.org, that allow you to upload a photo directly from your smartphone and will then identify the bee for you.
As explained to me in the “Lawns to Legumes” class, the Rusty Patched bumblebee could be found throughout the entire state of Minnesota.
However, as we transformed grasslands into roads, cities, and farmland, we changed their habitat. Diseases and pesticides also threaten the bumblebee; these factors, in addition to a few others, contribute to the decline of all our native bees.
What can I do as a homeowner to help the bee population? I was relieved to hear the class organizers were not asking me to till up my entire yard and plant native-blooming gardens: that is not a very practical approach. But, they did encourage us to plant small plots, about 10 square feet in size, as a stopping garden for bees. Buzzing about, bees expend a great amount of energy flying long distances between food sources. If small stopping gardens were planted, it would provide an opportunity for bees to rest and forage in your garden until it moves onto another food source. Thus, more food and habitat creates healthier bees.
Well planned native gardens-with taller plants to the middle or back of the garden and shorter plants to the front and outer edges-have more visual appeal than a wild mixture of plants, which often look more like weed patches. Trust me, I’ve made this mistake in my own yard! Come spring, I’ll be digging and rearranging my plants to create a more appealing garden. Early-spring bloomers, such as columbine, wild ginger, and wild geranium, serve as a great food source for the bees that emerge from the ground in April and May. Necessary as a winter food source, late bloomers include bee balm, aster, and turtlehead. On the Blue Thumb website, there is a great list of native plants, both woody plant materials, as well as perennials.
If you have a larger acreage, planting a meadow of natives is also encouraged. However, it will entail more work keeping ahead of tree saplings and invasive weeds from moving into your meadow, especially while establishing it. Weeding out saplings and digging up invasive species takes persistence and muscle but has its rewards with the abundance of bees, birds and wildlife you will have living in your meadow.