The Loma Prietan - March/April 2010

Gardening Green

The A-Bee-C's of Pleasing Pollinators

story and photo by Arvind Kumar

Woolly Angelica (Angelica tomentosa) supports a variety of bees and other pollinators.
Woolly Angelica (Angelica tomentosa) supports a variety of bees and other pollinators.

One cannot overstate the importance of bees to humans and the environment. Bees are called the world's star pollinators because they pollinate one-third of our food crops. The almond crop of California, for example, is entirely dependent on honey bees for pollination.

Pollinator populations worldwide have been declining due to habitat loss from human development. Honey bee populations in particular have plummeted since 2006, a phenomenon dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder. No one fully understands the reasons why, but pathogens and pesticides are among the suspects.

Most people are familiar with the European honey bee (originally from South and Southeast Asia), but few know that California is home to 1,600 species of native bees. These native bees are 200 times more efficient at pollination than honey bees! According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, pollinating an acre of apples requires 60,000-120,000 honey bees; the same area can be pollinated by 250-750 mason bees.

You, the home gardener, can support and rejuvenate the bee populations in your neighborhood. Dr Gordon Frankie of the University of California, Berkeley, has studied bee habitats, and he offers these recommendations:

• Eliminate the use of pesticides.

• Plant a diversity of nectar- and pollen-rich plants (10 or more species).

• Mass each plant in patches of a square meter or larger.

• Choose plants that bloom in succession over the seasons.

• Avoid excessive manicuring.

• Set aside some bare patches of soil for nesting.

Many native plants provide nectar and pollen to bees of all kinds. Here is a short list of native plants I have grown successfully in my garden, arranged in order by time of bloom.

California is home to an amazing diversity of two sunloving shrubs: manzanitas (Arctostaphylos sp) and ceanothuses. They come in a variety of forms, from groundcovers to shrubs to tree-like forms. Manzanitas burst into bloom in the winter, while ceanothuses bloom around March. The flowers are decorative as well as a rich source of nectar and pollen.

Spring provides a floriferous feast for bees with a host of wildflowers, among them California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), tansy-leaved phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia), blazing star (Mentzelia lindleyi), globe gilia (Gilia capitata), bird's eye gilia (Gilia tricolor), and the shade-loving Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla).

Spring-flowering subshrubs include sticky monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus) and woolly bluecurls (Trichostema lanatum). Coffeeberry shrubs (Rhamnus californica) have inconspicuous flowers, but the bees have no trouble finding them. California buckeye (Aesculus californica) and holly-leaved cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) are flowering trees loved by bees and other pollinators.

In late spring, the pink blooms of elegant clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata) draw crowds of bees, as do the lavender blossoms of coyote mint (Monardella villosa) and the white flowers of toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia).

The stars among summer-flowering native plants are the buckwheats. They come in a variety of sizes and forms. The subshrub California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) is especially alluring to bees and other pollinators, and easy to grow. Red buckwheat (Eriogonum grande rubescens) is smaller, more delicate, and very attractive.

Many plants from the sunflower family bloom in summer, such as gumplant (Grindelia sp), California aster (Aster chilensis), and lessingia (Lessingia filaginifolia). Elegant madia (Madia elegans) is a delightful, fragrant annual whose flowers open in late afternoon and close by 10 am. California sunflower (Helianthus annuus) grows well in full sun and appreciates some summer moisture.

This list of bee-friendly plants is just a sample of the diversity of natives available to the home gardener. When you grow them, you can be sure you are helping bees, native and otherwise; other types of pollinators; and the environment in general.

Sierra Club life member and California Native Plant Society director Arvind Kumar grows native plants in his Evergreen garden. He can be reached at