The Buzz about Bees – the whole ball of wax

On Thursday, May 21, I attended a talk about creating a pollinator garden using native plants by Dr. Geoff Leister, Master Gardener and Alamance County Beekeeper at the NC Cooperative Extension office.

Geoff outlined the major causes that have led to a 40% decline in honey bees since 2006 from CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder). Over 40,000 different species of native bees have been affected. (Monarch butterfly are in a 90% decline, too). Finding the cause is crucial, as bees are the primary pollinators of roughly one third of all crops worldwide. Experts say that the possible causes are declining nutrition, mites, disease, and pesticides.

As a beekeeper, Geoff recounted his personal experience of the factors that have led to this decline and the steps we can take, as landscapers and gardeners, to remedy this decline.


What’s Killing our Bees?

One of beekeepers’ main concerns and one of the first topics Geoff touched on is “neonics” or “neonicotinoids,” manmade insecticides.

According to, “Mites and viruses are often cited as the key culprits [of CCD] but there is a growing awareness that the chemical ‘soup’ of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides that are repeatedly sprayed on food crops that bees pollinate has a huge impact.”

Neonicotinoids are in the forefront of the news right now. Thanks to my daughter, Louisa for sending me the link to “Beautiful Death: Neonicotinoids Unmasked,” an article that explains simply and clearly the effect of using these insecticides on plants. Neonicotinoids are used to kill insects on all corn and soybean crops, sunflowers, safflowers tomatoes, berry bushes … and on nursery stock like trees, shrubs, perennials, and bedding plants and even on plants labeled “bee-friendly.”

Neonicotinoids make the entire plant toxic from root to tip to insects for a year or more. They are neurotoxins that cause paralysis and death. Honeybees are killed outright or become neurologically impaired and are not able to find their way back to the hive. Some may also carry the poison back to the hive, causing or contributing to “hive collapse” or CCD.

One of the audience shared that she had bought herbs from Lowes last year, to grow a butterfly garden with a preschool group, and found that none of the herbs were visited by butterflies. I myself noticed that last year that we had no swallow tail butterflies visiting the fennel that was growing in the healing garden in the hospital.

How many of us have been unwittingly buying plants treated with neonicotinoids from the nurseries which we then plant in our landscape, kill our bees, as well as other insects and birds, and add toxins that are residual in the soil for up to 2 years?

Bee keepers have long known the connection between insecticides and the decline of the honey bees. Thankfully, the rising protests of environmental activists such as Friends of the Earth have publicized the growing body of scientific evidence telling us to move away from bee-toxic chemicals and have successfully targeted the big home improvement chains to change their policies about purchasing neonic pesticides.

On April 9, 2015, NBC announced that Lowe’s will “stop selling Neonic pesticides linked to bee deaths” and Home Depot announced last summer that it would label plants treated with neonicotinoids.



Geoff also brought up another area of concern for bee keepers that is not as widely publicized – new flower hybrids with unusual colors, double flowers, and bigger blooms. Studies show that we are modifying plants without considering how this impacts the insects necessary for the plant’s pollination. Geoff explained that honey bees in particular are very sensitive to the color and scent of the flowers. Some hybrids are almost impossible to pollinate, as they do not produce much pollen or seeds, and the wide divergence in shape and color may be unrecognizable to bees.

Other pollinators need special landing pads so they can access the nectar. Studies have shown that purple pigment in the foliage tastes bad to some caterpillars! A garden with hybrids and exotic plants will have less insects and pollinators, less birds to feed off the insects, and thus less wildlife.


Can we make a difference?

So what can we do, as gardeners, landscapers, nature lovers, ecologists, bee keepers? Can we, as individuals, make a difference?

Yes! Restore native plants and save our pollinators and wildlife!

Geoff defines natives as plants that have adapted to the ecological area they grow in. They are plants that have been in the area before humans introduced other plants from other areas, and they are the primary food source for wildlife. That means they are hardy, adaptable, and easily pollinated by local insects and pollinators. They do not need insecticides, heavy fertilization, or special watering regimes.

There are native plants for all situations. For our ecological region (the Piedmont, NC), which is the South Eastern mixed forest, we have an abundance of natives to choose from — hibiscus, verbena, catmint, phlox, goldenrod, Joe Pye weed, coral honeysuckle … to name just a few.

Geoff discussed various ways to attract pollinators, from providing native plants and “buffer zones” between streams and land, to creating small pools of water and ash for butterflies to “puddle in.” Leaving dead branches out for insects provides more food for birds. And only buy native plants from reputable nurseries such as Niche Gardens and the NC Botanical Garden at Chapel Hill. Shop for organic fruits and vegetables and send a message to the big companies to stop using pesticides!

In his book Bringing Nature Home, Douglas Tallamy lists which of the native plants in your region of the country attract the highest number of wildlife. He describes the interdependency of living relationships and redefines our gardens as the new Nature. In this call for action, we can all become backyard ecologists and do our part to save and preserve nature.

Attend one or more of the many workshops about pollinator gardens and native plants. Triangle Gardener is a free publication in this area (NC) which is “a local guide to enjoyable gardening.” This month’s issue features articles about ways to help save the Monarch butterfly and how to create native plant habitats. Under garden events, there are classes about native plant propagation, and many of the landscapers and nurseries advertised in the magazine, support native plant designed landscapes.


Diversify plantings

Geoff says that his bee hives are flourishing better in town, in an urban setting, than his mentor’s in the countryside because of diverse planting in his urban garden as compared to the fields of single crops in the surrounding countryside. He promotes plant diversity as a way to protect plants and pollinators from being wiped out by a single disease or insect pests.

This has been verified again by scientific studies, which state that large tracts of land that grow only one crop may hurt bee nutrition. On May 19, 2015, the Federal government proposed a plan to restore 7 million acres of bee habitat in the next five years, in an effort to provide a safe, healthy environment. University of Montana bee expert Jerry Bromenshenk is quoted in an email as saying, “It’s a wakeup call. Pollinators need safe havens, with adequate quantities of high-quality resources for food and habitat, relatively free from toxic chemicals, and that includes pollutants as well as pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.”



Geoff has offered his power point presentation to anyone who would like copies; his email address is

Some of the recommended sites for Pollinator information are:

Attracting Pollinators to your Garden Using Native Plants:

Pollinator partnership:

Native Plant Source information: NC Native Plant Society:

North Carolina’s Native Plant Society’s List of About 24 recommended and approved nurseries:

Going Native Urban landscaping for Wildlife with NC Native Plants:

Debbie Roos’ list of top 25 bee plants for Piedmont of NC:

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