bee forage

An act of defiance: plant a flower


Honey bee nutrition is getting a lot of press these days, and rightfully so. Many bee experts—including Marla Spivak, Zachary Huang, and Randy Oliver—believe that a lack of good nutrition may be a major factor in declining bee health.

It is possible that many of the viruses and other pathogens that are plaguing bees are more apt to harm individuals that lack essential elements in their diet. Living organisms use the nutrients in food to build healthy bodies and to maintain a robust immune system. When some of the nutrients are missing, the biological systems cannot perform properly, and other organisms can get a leg up. It could be that some of these pathogens are no worse than they used to be, but in a malnourished bee, the pathogens have the advantage.

The pollinator environment has changed

Poor bee nutrition is due to changes in the environment. In a pristine natural environment bees will find all the nutritious food they need. But in an environment where mankind has selected the plants that grow, and has removed weeds from hedgerows, lawns, parks, roadsides, drainage ditches and row crops, the food selection is reduced. In many areas, evergreens have replaced “messy” deciduous trees, lawns have trumped meadows, and hybridized “show” flowers have displaced wildflowers. All these changes serve mankind while starving the bees that pollinate our food.

The situation is even worse for the small native bees that don’t fly very far. Whereas honey bees can fly four or more miles if needed, some of our wild bees can fly only a few hundred meters. If there is insufficient food in their range, they will die and not produce offspring.

Yes, I know that helpless feeling. You can’t change the way a farmer crops his field or the way the county sprays the median. You can’t keep your neighbor from the weed-and-feed. But you can do this: you can plant a flower. Any kind, from flowering trees to tiny violets, will help some pollinator somewhere.

So plant a flower

Neighborhoods with flower boxes, potted plants, flowering shrubs, and creeping vines are rich with pollinators. Fruit trees, hanging planters, vegetable gardens, dented buckets, and rusted watering cans make us happy too.

Bees, birds, humans . . . who doesn’t love a flower? And who doesn’t love a petal-rustling breeze, a dew-studded orb, or the glint of a waxy leaf in the sunshine? Best, it doesn’t require lots of time or heaps of money. Everyone can do it.

If every front step or porch or balcony in America hosted a flowering plant, the pollinators would have pathways—avenues of sustenance that would assure the next generation and the one after that. Summer days would once again shimmer and susurrate with life as they were meant to.

So don’t let the homeowner’s association, the highway department, or the town council dictate your life. In a simple act of defiance, plant a flower. Plant one or plant a hundred. Your act can make a difference.


Honey bee on boxwood.

Honey bee on boxwood. © Rusty Burlew.


  • From your mouth to God’s ears!!! You know Rusty, we can talk till we’re blue in the face. I’ve, over the years, have said time and time again and it’s the so-called protectors of the honey bee, the same ones who “Have to keep up with the Joneses”. Back in the day, my father would harvest the most incredible buckwheat honey in Newtown CT. With the expansion of housing or “progress”, the fields that once adorned the area which my father fell in love with as did I, have long since been turned into townhouses and strip malls, the clover and buckwheat which was the farmers’ primary source of nitrogen has long been replaced with concrete foundations and sidewalks. In move the affluent who could spot out a dandelion at 100 yards and blast it with a shot of Roundup! People need to wake up and realize, They are in fact to blame!!!!! If you have perfectly manicured “weed”??? free lawn or garden, hey, guess what?

    I’m in the county of Queens in New York, my back yard, dandelions, clover and yes buckwheat!!!! The cemetery across from me, clover and dandelions, somehow, even though the caretakers try, clover, seems to keep growing in this one acre section 😉
    Just because you’ve planted some pesticide-laden flowers you picked up at the local home specialty shop, Please DON’T think you’re doing your part, because you’re not!!! You’re only making matters worse!!

    And to the “beeks” or whatever they call themselves who think sugar water is the answer? Take a look at the stats on obesity and diabetes in this country. Sugar has zero nutritional value, the same way humans suffer from zero nutritional value food fillers (diseases, sickness, ailments, etc) that should tell you something. Bees are no different.


  • One thing you can do at this time of year is buy several pounds of seeds such as white dutch clover, chicory or seeds of whatever types of pollinator plants thrive in your area and plant them in waste areas in your neighborhood such as fence rows, cuts and banks abandoned lots etc. At this time of year planting by “frost seeding” is easy and it is effective even into existing lawns and pastures. See

  • I wholeheartedly agree with this! As I walk around my neighborhood (which fortunately is full of a lot of environmental minded individuals who plant flowers instead of grass), I see so many places that could be put to flower use. Like all the park strips between the street and the sidewalk…why not plant those to flowers or clover there and give the bees & other pollinators a corridor through the city? If every city in the country encouraged the use of native plants or clover in those park strips it would dramatically increase the forage.

  • “You can’t change the way a farmer crops his field or the way the county sprays the median.”

    I’m probably a bit naive but is there anything to say you couldn’t? Around here (central IL) we have several programs for “prairie restoration”. I also see many areas of the county that have wildflowers growing much of the season in the ditches and along waterways. So much so that I don’t think they are all natural happenstance. If you could pick a native flower that is pretty and wouldn’t require much maintenance, one might be able to sell it as a restoration / beautification / pollination / money saving project.

  • Marla Spivac spoke Saturday March 8th at the Worcester County Bee Association (MA) and compared feeding pollen patties and sugar water to oreo cookies and soda! She expressed very strong opinions on bee nutrition.

  • Rusty,

    Amazingly, the 3 “experts” you cited are advocates for feeding soy pollen subs and HFCS. They all have written extensively that sugar and nectar have no difference between them and soy based pollen subs have all the same nutrition as plant pollens. At the same time, the industry raises queens with the same substances during times when natural forage is relatively nonexistent. Beekeepers have been given poor advice and need to understand the phenology of nature and the proper nutrition honey bees require from nature, not nutrition from a bag of foreign man made material.

    Is it any wonder queen and colony longevity has plummeted over the last couple decades?

  • In the UK we are (very slowly) recognising that “bee margins” are a good thing…alongside major roads, areas that are traditionally mown flat three times a year are being seeded instead. They have finally realised it’s cheaper and is *stunning* to look at.

    It’s still taking a while to penetrate the skulls of the industrial grunts who seem to prefer the scorched earth “tidy” approach. Numbskulls.

  • I bought 3 lbs of purple clover and 3 lbs of wildflowers that I’m going to fling on the hills surrounding our property. I’ll water until established and then let them do God’s will.

  • Before everybody starts sowing seeds, please consider the natural habitat in your area.

    Just because a flower is native to North America doesn’t mean it’s suitable to your area–it might be considered an invasive weed and crowd out actual native plants. Consult a knowledgeable person/group who can give you good advice on what is suitable to your area.

    I’m in So California. The wildflower seeds that I’d sow are plants that are native to this area, that will give the native bees as well as the honey bees good forage.

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