Gardening | Spring is for pollinators … and vegetables

By Master Gardener Lesley Arrandale
mail@floridanewsline.com

Spring has been in the air, but surely temperatures will fluctuate considerably between now and our last potential frost date, around March 20. According to the University of Florida, a mix of cool and warm season vegetables may be planted in February, but early March is safer for warm season crops, although they may still need protection if a frost or freeze is forecast: https://tinyurl.com/y5z2lyoq.

By early March we can be confident that honey bees have been working their hives since early in the year. They have had easy access to our native trees like the pretty eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) and red maple (Acer rubrum), both of which begin to flower in January. When little else is in bloom, flowering trees are vital for honey bees to get their year off to a healthy start; however, if they are well sheltered, some perennials may bloom through the winter. I have a pot of African Blue basil which is tucked in a corner of a hedge, and is flowering and feeding honey bees as I type. Even a rather neglected pot of Pentas lanceolata has a bloom or two.

Native bees are a varied bunch, nesting in the ground, in hollow stems and fallen wood, in leaf or mud nests they construct themselves. They often are solitary, although they may nest near each other. The exceptions are the bumble bees, which live in small colonies with a single queen. This article goes into more detail: https://tinyurl.com/yxdc6gms. Different species show up in our yards at different times of the year, and visit different flowering plants, and many of their favorite food sources are native. Some have long tongues, some short, and it’s these variations that determine what flower structures they can exploit. For great pictures of some of our native bees, as well as flowers and ready-made nest structures we can add to our yards to attract them, check out this presentation: https://tinyurl.com/y4y42bhq.

In early spring, my native spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) attracts honey bees, lazily cruising from bloom to bloom. They produce ample seed, so they can spread too easily, but mulch them in a garden bed and they can be kept in check, making tidy clumps which can be controlled.

I love dotted horsemint (Monarda punctata), which provides a veritable banquet for a huge variety of pollinators, including tiny beneficial wasps and flies. Cut it back as the flowers set seed to avoid lots of volunteers. As the horsemint fades, my blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) takes over. This has stunning fuzzy mid-blue to lavender flowers which appeal mightily to butterflies as well as bees: I’ve seen up to a dozen skippers, Gulf fritillary, and monarchs flitting around a four by six foot patch. It will spread, a bit like mint, so keep it confined within edging.

Many of our vegetables and fruits are pollinated by honey bees, but native bees play a big role too. The blueberry bee is one. Some plants like tomatoes are wind pollinated, but the larger bumblebees can produce a strong, quite loud buzzing sound — a process called sonication — that similarly dislodges pollen. If you grow any food plant that produces fruits, you will benefit from increased production by providing these little wonders with sustenance, water, and shelter.

Check out this publication from the Xerces Society: https://tinyurl.com/y4yml3xe. It lists native Florida plants by flowering season: they all support our native beneficial insect populations.

I really have to stress that native bees aren’t aggressive and don’t sting unless we harass them or accidentally hurt them, and their value as pollinators can’t be underestimated. If you have a flowerbed that these insects are attracted to, you may find them fascinating and enjoy watching them as much as I do: just grab a chair and watch as nature plays out in front of you.