The 500 wild bee species in Wisconsin are struggling, but everyone can contribute to making welcoming habitats for bees. Wochit
DELAVAN – Hidden away in a neighborhood near Delavan Lake is a garden. A human would see it as only a garden, albeit a rather large one.
To a bee, the riot of flowers is a pollinator’s paradise.
Kathleen Renowden started the garden when she moved to the area in 2010. She said she had always been “kind of an environmentalist,” and planting gardens to serve pollinators and other small animals seemed like a logical next step. The garden in Delavan is her fourth to be certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.
A gardener of 40 years, Renowden enthusiastically named flowers as she walked along the mulched paths through the garden: purple towers of anise hyssop, fluffy white New Jersey tea, bright sunflowers, purple coneflower and delicate yellow partridge pea.
She explained that a steady supply of blossoms from early spring through late autumn provides a consistent supply of pollen and nectar for hungry bees.
The garden is largely composed of native plants, with more than 160 on display, because their blooms are usually the best choice for bees.
Cultivated blossoms, on the other hand, are bred to be pleasing for humans in shape and color, but bees can't necessarily interact with these foreign features. Additionally, nectar and pollen production can be insufficient in cultivated plants.
“If you want to play it safe, using native plants is probably your best bet for making sure they’re compatible with bees,” Gratton added.
Despite the strong emphasis on native plants, Renowden's goal was not a prairie restoration. Rather, she wanted to showcase the beauty of native plants in a more manicured, traditional setting.
You also have to look at the ornamental value and you have to look at aesthetically what’s going to work for people. Something that works in the prairie that’s 8 feet tall isn’t going to work on my suburban lawn,” she said.
Maintaining a border of mowed grass around the garden also keeps it looking tidy and sets off the flowers.
Wandering through Renowden’s garden, the multitude of tiny life forms flitting and flying about the flowers is mesmerizing and delightful — and in sharp contrast to the sterile environment typical of a suburban lawn.
Remember wild bees
It’s no secret that honeybees across the nation face challenges due to habitat loss, pesticides, disease and parasites. Considering their importance in the production of food crops like cranberries and almonds, it’s no wonder that Americans are concerned for their health.
But honeybees aren’t the only ones who need our attention. The other 4,000 bee species found in the U.S. — 500 of which are found in Wisconsin — are also struggling.
The rusty-patch bumble bee offers one case study. This bee once ranged from Minnesota to Maine and as far south as Georgia. However over the past two decades, the population has plunged by 90%, and in January 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service categorized the rusty-patch bumble bee as an endangered species.
Wild bees are a large, diverse, and often overlooked group of pollinators. Unlike the social hive-dwelling honeybee, most wild bees live solitary lives and build their nests underground.
These bees play important roles in ecosystems. They are partly or completely responsible for the reproduction of 80% of flowering plants. Native plants, which have evolved alongside these bees, are particularly reliant on them and, in turn, provide food and shelter for other insects, animals and birds.
Considering the current plight of honeybees in particular, maintaining wild bee populations and diversity can supplement our agricultural needs.
“Having these thriving populations in the countryside, just naturally occurring, is just one way that we can ensure that at least our crops get pollinated,” said Claudio Gratton, professor of entomology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
But the flower-filled habitats that supply bees with food and shelter are dwindling as humans claim the landscape. Without a place to call home, “Bees are basically starving,” Gratton said. “They don’t actually have a place to raise their young.”
If there is a silver lining for wild bees, it is that all of us can help them thrive — if we are just willing to get our hands a little dirty.
How to help
Planting a pollinator garden is the type of activity that will get food back in the landscape for bees, Gratton said.
Small changes like what Renowden is doing are the kinds of things that will get food back in the landscape for bees, said Gratton.
To those others wanting to join the effort, he recommended planting a variety of bee-friendly flowers in the your yard that bloom throughout the year; leaving spaces or dead logs undisturbed to provide nesting areas; and avoiding pesticide use. Gratton recommends viewing the Wisconsin Pollinator Protection Plan and the Xerces Society website for more details about pollinator gardens and lists of bee-friendly relevant native plants.
For those concerned about being stung, Gratton clarified that wasps, not bees, are usually the insects people have bad experiences with. “Most bees are very docile. You usually don’t even know that they are active right under your nose.”
Renowden doesn’t expect most people to create spaces as expansive as hers, but many small gardens can still add up to a big impact. that it only takes a small step to catch the gardening bug. “Just plant a little, little garden.” “You just need to start with a couple feet.”
IF YOU GO
In order to share her passion for pollinators and provide others with ideas to start their own gardens, Renowden will hold the Premier Pollinator’s Palette Garden Tour from 1 to 5 p.m. Aug. 5.
The tour will start at 2916 King St. in Delavan and cover more than 4,000 square feet of plant displays, including Renowden’s personal garden, the Delmar Beach Garden and another lakeshore home.
The tour will be free. Optional $5 donations will go to the Xerces Society and Pollinator’s Partnership.