Dibbles and Bits

Butterflies and bees are nowhere in sight on this snowy day in March. Still, the flowers and vegetables that we consider for spring depend on pollinators. Today’s features include thinking bees, Monarchs, and native plants that draw pollinators.

Thinking Bee:  From the first bees we see on fruit trees, to summer zinnias, to cucumbers in the garden are different kinds of bees. North America has 3,600 species of native bees, with some of them present in our gardens. 

Most are solitary, fending for themselves, unlike the honeybee worker in a hive. In its short six weeks or so of life, the honeybee learns how to construct combs, pack cells with honey, and navigate for miles to the honey source noting preferred flowers that open and decline in that short span of weeks. Learning these things is called instinct, as if less than understanding.

Dr. Lars Chittka, a professor at Queen Mary University in London, wrote The Mind of a Bee, describing his and others’ research on examples of what bees can learn. He found that bees count landmarks to navigate the efficient route to pollen and honey. His colleague showed that bees learn from more experienced bees. An artificial bee attached to the end of a stick showed other bees how to roll a ball to the center of the platform to get a sugar reward.

Chittka says that bees are more than a means to a harvest. More investigation may show that bees experience suffering and pleasure. The feature appears in March/April Horticulture magazine, available for browsing at Yankton Community Library.

Eastern Monarch butterflies are easily recognized as pollinators that migrate from Canada and the northern United States to central Mexico, with area sightings in August and September. Numbers have decreased by about 80% in the last decades due to the loss of milkweed and native plants they (and other pollinators) need for food and shelter. Pesticides, disease, and changing climate also add to the butterfly’s decline.

These insects are the basis of the ecosystem in which they and we live. Monarchs serve as poster insects to remind us that pollinators help increase the garden crop we eat and are themselves food for birds and other animals that help keep our ecosystem in balance. See more in the feature in November/December 2022 of The American Gardener magazine.

Native Plants for bees and other pollinators: Flowers have many shapes, including pads for insects to land to help pollinate the plant. Flower colors and markings are cues for pollinators. To draw specific pollinators, The Xerces Society, http://www.xerces.org, is a source for native plants that attract them. Articles by Heather Holm of Minnetonka, MN, are another.

A feature in the March/April 2023, The American Gardener magazine listed perennial native plants at least USDA Hardiness Zone 4 or below and generally attract various native bees. 

Giant Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea)

Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)

Lanceleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)

Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens)

Prairie Rose (Rosa arkansana)

Smooth Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)

Spotted Geranium (Geranium maculatum)

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

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