With hives in sharp decline, expert calls for bee-friendly flowers

In this photo provided by the Xerces Society, a bumblebee paused on a flower.
AP Photo/Xerces Society, Eter Schroeder

Bee expert Marla Spivak is concerned about the pesticides known as neonicotinoids, but also about other threats to bees that are much easier to pronounce: Viruses. Mites. Drought.

A recent New York Times article about the alarming decline of bees discussed all of those. But Spivak, a professor in entomology and director of the Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota, homes in on a broader problem: a lack of flowers.

"We really have a flowerless landscape out there, and bees need flowers for good nutrition," Spivak said Monday on The Daily Circuit. "If bees have good nutrition, and a lot of pollen and protein coming in and nectar coming in, they're better able to fight off these diseases. And it helps them detoxify some of the pesticides. We really need bee-friendly flowers out there, everywhere."

Host Kerri Miller asked whether the lack of flowers is mainly a problem around the cities, but Spivak said no.

"It's throughout Minnesota, really. Think about all the plantings of corn and soybeans that are going in," she said. "Every time we do that, we eliminate a lot of the flowering plants that bees need. And if you look at our roadsides, they're mowed or they're sprayed."

Bee Balm
Bee Balm flowers bloom Friday, July 7, 2012, at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary in Minneapolis, Minn. The 15-acre garden, which opened in 1907, features over 500 plant species and 130 bird species.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The drop in the bee population has direct consequences for the human food supply, she pointed out. "Fruits and vegetables are back 'in' ... which means we're going to need more bees to help pollinate them. We need our honeybees and all of our wild bees to pollinate all these fruit and vegetable crops that we really need for our own diet."

One of the answers, she said, would be to plant wildflowers. "Roadsides can be seeded in beautiful wildflowers for bees," she said. "A lot of our state land doesn't have flowers. A lot of our parks — think of golf courses. We have a lot of lawns. All of these things could be seeded in wildflowers that would be great for bees."

A caller from St. Cloud said she was planning her garden for this year, and asked what seeds she could plant to help the bees in her area. "Go with the native perennials," Spivak advised. "All of those native plants that flower are great for bees." She listed some by common name:

Prairie clover.
Mountain mint.
Bee balm.
•Late season asters and goldenrods.

Milkweed is also good for monarch butterflies, Spivak said. And "Honeybees really like clover and alfalfa and buckwheat," so people with enough land to plant should consider those.