Save the bumblebee or see weeds?

Wade Young

I am faced with a dilemma. Do I help save the bees or be happy with a dandelion-free yard?


On January 11, 2017, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service placed the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) on the list of endangered species. The listing became effective on March 21, 2017, making it the first listed bee from the continental United States. 


The rusty patched bumble bee is a species of bumble bee once common in eastern North America, but in recent years it has declined from an estimated 87 percent of its historic range. The rusty patched bumble bee is a large social bee that lives in nests in the ground. It was once an excellent pollinator of wildflowers, and many important crops. Both the female workers and males have a small rust-colored patch on the middle of their second abdominal segment. Queens, workers, and males all forage for pollen and nectar.


Bumble bees and other pollinators need high quality habitat to survive. For the rusty patched bumble bee, urban habitats can be just as important as rural landscapes. Keeping urban habitats pesticide free is important for habitat quality and for the recovery of the rusty patched bumble.


According to the University of Minnesota Extension Service, we should all consider creating or restoring pollinator habitat. Bumble bees need three things to survive. 


1. Food. Plant diverse flowers that bloom from early spring through fall. Rusty patched bumble bees collect nectar and pollen from a variety of flowering plants including native plants, heirloom garden plants, trees, weeds and crops. In your yard, plant heirloom and native species, such as salvia, mint, lupines, asters, bee balm, native prairie plants and spring ephemerals. 


Without flowers throughout the season, bumble bee queens and colonies can die. We don’t want that! 


2. Habitat: Leave some areas undisturbed for nesting and overwintering. Bumble bees nest under bunch grasses, piled stones, brush and compost piles, in abandoned rodent holes, or other overgrown areas. Bumble bee queens need a safe place to overwinter or hibernate. Areas with bare soil and leaf litter (including evergreen needle duff) are likely to support overwintering queens. 


3. Management. Pesticides should not be used in or around nesting and forage sites. Pesticides that enter nesting habitat and foraging areas can harm and even kill bees. 


This is where things get dicey with me. I like a clean lawn - no dandelions or blooming clover. I don’t like weeds in my gardens. I have a lot of perennial plants, many of which were mentioned above, but I detest the invasive weeds that creep in.


So we have our lawn treated to help it grow. According to the Extension Service, we should strongly consider not using herbicides and permitting flowering plants to grow in the lawn. UGH. A pollinator-friendly lawn contains small flowering plants like dandelions, clover, self-heal, blanket flower, and creeping thyme. 


I’ve decided on a solution that works for me and the bumbles. Buy more plants for the gardens! That will snuff out weeds and create more blooming plants the bees will love. Sure they won’t have the lawn flowers, but will they even miss them with all of the extra garden plants? I hope not!


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