Minnesota author's guide to a bee-friendly backyard

A bumble bee climbs into a rose
A bumble bee climbs into a rose in Rhonda Fleming Hayes yard to begin buzz pollination. It will vibrate its wings rapidly to dislodge pollen. Hayes says this is just one of many methods bees use to gather pollen.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

In a South Minneapolis, yard a bumble bee is immersed in its work. As Rhonda Fleming Hayes watches, the insect crawls inside a rose bloom to gather nectar and begins a high frequency hum, sounding almost like a mosquito.

"They do something called buzz pollination," she says. "They are going to vibrate their wings very fast at a high frequency and it's going to create that sound."

Hayes says the vibration shakes pollen loose "and they will take it and pack it on their back legs, you might have seen some of them have like little yellow pouches on their side. That is a mixture that they refer to as bee bread."

Rhonda Fleming Hayes stands by her kitchen garden
Rhonda Fleming Hayes stands by her kitchen garden. She says she learned from British gardeners that planting flowers among the vegetables not only encourages pollinators to visit the garden, it is aesthetically pleasing too.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

As the bees move from flower to flower, they pollinate the plants they visit. Hayes says different species work in different ways.

"Honey bees will tend to kind of hover and pick at flowers," she said. "And then there are mason bees. They kind of do a belly-flop into a blossom. And it's actually a more efficient pollination than a honey bee. They'll get in there and kind of just wallow in it."

Hayes is the author of "Pollinator Friendly Gardening." It's a how-to book on creating a garden which not only attracts bees, but also butterflies, beetles, hummingbirds and even bats.

Hayes claims to have been a keen gardener since she was in diapers. She always fed her family homegrown vegetables. But she only focused on pollinators later.

 A sign by the sidewalk
Rhonda Fleming Hayes planted her Linden Hills garden specifically to encourage pollinators. A sign by the sidewalk encourages passers-by to learn more.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

After her children left for college she stood outside one day wondering whom — or what — she was going to feed.

"I heard this bee, and I thought, 'Hmm. That's who I can start to take care of. I can nurture the bees.'"

Hayes says she quickly found there were few pointers available about encouraging insects. "For gardeners most information is about how to kill insects," she said. "And so I started kind of doing my own observations and using different plants and just seeing which bees and butterflies and hummingbirds etcetera would visit those plants. And at some point this became a book."

And one of the main points in her book goes back to all that stuff she found about killing bugs.

"One of the basic tenets of pollinator friendly gardening is to avoid pesticide use."

Milkweed
Rhonda Fleming Hayes says she intended to plant milkweed in her yard to encourage butterflies, and was delighted when a plant appeared of its own volition. She says she has to be careful of her husband however, who grew up on an Illinois farm and was paid to pull milkweed whenever it appeared.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Which as Hayes points out in her book is more complicated than just stopping spraying. There is growing evidence that commonly used pesticides known as neonicotinoids harm bees. The pesticides linger in plants and in the soil.

Hayes warns commercial growers often spray plants early, so it is important to ask a lot of questions at the gardening store before buying.

She says encouraging pollinators naturally helps other creatures further up the food chain, which often consider pests as delicacies. She's delighted when she sees a bird nesting above her porch.

"If she is bringing a cabbage worm to her baby birds every 20 minutes that's natural pest control that I don't have to deal with."

Hayes' garden in the Linden Hills neighborhood is a riot of color, and, particularly when the sun come out, humming with visiting insects.

It's so dense and lush it's a surprise to learn she only planted the garden four years ago. There's Milkweed in one corner for the Monarchs.

"My husband, being an Illinois farm boy, goes 'I just don't want to know about that!'" she laughed. "'Don't tell me there's Milkweed in the front yard. I was paid to pick that and rogue that out of the fields!'"

Over by their front porch there's Butterfly Bush. It's popular because as its name suggests it's a butterfly magnet. However, it is not native and is considered invasive in some parts of the country because it can spread so fast.

As a result, Hayes said it's important to make sure you get a specially bred sterile variety.

There are flowers and bushes out front, with a kitchen garden on the side of the house.

"And you'll notice I have all sorts of flowers planted among my vegetables." she said. "And that's for beauty and also to attract more bees. And that helps my yield, helps the plant's productivity, more complete pollination."

She says a few packets of seeds can make a difference.

"Gardeners starting out want to aim for three blooming plants per season," she said.

That way pollinators returning to a garden will always find something to eat. A water source is good she says, and some shade for the hot months too.

"So it doesn't take a lot of money, or a lot of work necessarily," she said. "My whole feeling is that if everybody did a little bit of something. One garden is not going to solve the problem of habitat loss, but if every gardener makes a few simple changes, eventually that creates a movement."

A movement literally creating a buzz.

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