gardening for bees

The long path back to nature

One day in August I was sitting in an Adirondack chair midway between a busy bee hive and a large stand of lemon balm. I had a notebook and was trying to outline my next post. “You are so noisy, I can’t think!” I complained aloud. But I wasn’t addressing the hive, I was speaking to the lemon balm.

The lemon balm was drooping under the weight of yellow and black bumble bees. From each bee I heard Buzzzzz. Pause. Buzzzzz. Pause. Over and over multiplied by about 300. These were mostly males, not collecting pollen but drinking nectar and chasing women. “Carousing” comes to mind.

Pollinator-friendly plants attract many insects

Every year I plant a few more pollinator-friendly plants and I have been richly rewarded by an explosion of bees and butterflies. Each summer I identify more bees—species I have never seen before. And the influx of butterflies, moths, dragonflies, and beetles leaves me speechless. Their variety is astounding.

Spending twenty years in one place without the use of pesticides has been a once-in-a-lifetime journey. Of course, my lawn wouldn’t meet the standards of a homeowners’ association, the fruit on my trees is shared with the local fauna, and all those fat spiders think they’re in paradise. You could think of these as the bad things, but the pluses are countless.

Insects bring the birds

The many insects that live here attract a large diversity of birds. I’m not a bird person, but I can tell you there are big ones and small ones, red and yellow and blue and orange, some quiet and some loud. Birds that eat from the ground, out of trees, and in the air. The number of species has multiplied in the twenty years, and I think it’s because of all the food. The insects aren’t poisoned, nor the plants, nor the water, so it’s a fine place to live if you’re a bird.

In turn, the vast population of birds keeps down the insects. They eat the caterpillars, mosquitoes, ants, beetles, and thrips that might otherwise destroy my garden. Oh sure, they eat a few bees as well, but nature seems to be in balance. When everything is allowed to live naturally, no one species takes over, and each has its place. Each is a part of the whole.

Nature in balance

Clean water—that is, non-poisoned water—also attracts frogs, garden snakes, salamanders, and fish—many of which also eat mosquitoes and other pests. I see maybe a half-dozen mosquitoes during the entire summer, and all those spiders? They eat zillions of insects, too. In fact, a home inspector once told me that a crawlspace with webs and spiders was a good thing because the spiders scarf up the carpenter ants, boring beetles, and termites that can destroy a home. Kill the spiders and the bad guys can thrive; let the spiders live and you don’t need insecticides.

Having grown up in a pesticide culture and having been educated as an agronomist, I was skeptical of going pesticide-free. But when I moved into my present home, I knew there were fish in the stream and frogs in the woodland, and I didn’t want to mess with that. And honestly, the first time some fast-munching, feces-dropping, six-legged egg factory took out my vegetables, it was difficult to maintain my resolve.

It takes time. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and that is the hardest part. If you can get through the transition years, the land, the plants, and the animals will take care of themselves and reward you many times over. Even now, I remain in awe of the world I helped nurture, not by doing good, but­­­­­­ by not doing bad.

Honey Bee Suite

Bumble bee on the path back to nature

Bumble bee © Rusty Burlew.

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  • My surprise was that my honeybees didn’t seem to be frequenting my lemon balm! All the other bees thought it was awesome. 🙂

  • I love reading your posts! They put words to feelings that I have about my own garden, but could not possibly find the words the way you do. Thank you, Rusty. Thoroughly enjoy your musings.

  • I have only had bees for four years, but have loved my yard bugs forever! We welcome spiders, and have also noticed that we have very few mosquitos in any year. I am stunned at the many kinds of pollinating insects that are laying eggs in my simple pollinator hotel. Our whole yard sings with the voices of birds, bees, frogs, and happy flowers. I love keeping a yard that is also a sanctuary. Blessed bees!

  • Hello Rusty,

    I read a good story about spiders being aliens. They live for hundreds of years but we don’t notice because their brethren come & collect them before we notice. Now & then a few big ones eat those who kill spiders, so we’ll be OK! Not much honey this year, but my bees are healthy, so I’m happy.


  • Rusty, your efforts have been blessed! And now they bless the rest of us with knowledge to follow the same long, patient path.

    Here’s a bit of good news: our club set up a booth this past weekend at a parish festival in the next county. We sold honey and honey straws, and our “freebie” was a small envelope of White Dutch clover seed (donated by our local feed mill). We explained that if they wanted to help the bees, they could sow it in their lawns, and it would not only provide nectar but enrich the soil to help the grass grow.

    Everyone’s face lit up as we handed one out: NO-ONE said “Euw, that’s a weed, I don’t want it in my lawn.” Several people remarked, “That sure is better than chemicals!”

    People are catching on!

    Northern Kentucky

  • I love this post! This could be my yard. Mine is a little on the wild side, but when I walk past the purple asters and a cloud of butterflies comes up, it’s beautiful. Like you say, my garden won’t pass homeowner association standards but it is ALIVE. My garden is a pulsating, living organism. And I too have never seen so many varieties of beautiful wasps and bees.

    Short toothed mountain mint, hairy mountain mint, coneflower, asters are all great pollinator plants for the garden.

  • My husband and I are in our fifth year of letting our small farm go back to nature, We raise honeybees and have a few chickens. Mostly we try not to “maintain” much more than an acre or so around the house. We are amazed at the new species of plants and wildflowers that appear each spring. I agree with your statement about nuturing by not so much doing good, but by not doing bad. That about sums up our strategy.

  • Ahhh. Stuff like this is why yours is the only blog I read faithfully. I am always enlightened by your bravery, persistence, wonder, and persnickitiness.

  • Rusty!

    Thank you for your thoughts and feelings about trying not to do bad for “your” land and watching in awe as it evolves.

    We’ve been doing the same thing unintentionally. Looking at old pictures one day a few years ago revealed how the land had formed edges, clumps and hedgerows comprised of all sorts of plants. It had naturalized with no real plan on our part.

    Being surrounded (seems like saturated by nature some days) by nature has been an invaluable and rewarding experience – even when the ants are carrying away more than dad bees……..



  • Truely said! My yard is not as blessed with features as yours, but when I bought my 1/3 acre lot in a suburb of Mpls, it had some pitiful little bushes planted right next to the foundation, “landscape rock” were piled 3 feet out around the whole house. (The basement still leaked.) Now we have a riot of native plantings which the neighbors think are evidence of madness. But we have toads, bugs, butterflies, many native beetles, bees and a resident garden snake along with our hive. It’s never dull. It’s always loud! There is no such thing as silence-in-nature unless you are in a dead zone.

  • Ditto, Rusty. When I started keeping honey bees, I vowed to cease with the insecticides, weed killer lawn spray and anything else that gives off poisonous fumes. Like you said, breaking that habit was tough at first but I have relaxed and learned to live with the critters. I draw the line with the huge spiders that build a complexity of webs from the house gutters to the fence right in the flight path of the bees, though. I don’t kill the spiders, but I do knock their webs down. They get the hint and go build somewhere else. I just can’t stand seeing my little girls all wound up tight in a web for a spider’s supper. That was just too easy pickings!7 When the sedum started blooming, along came these huge, gorgeous yellow striped and black spiders building their webs off the fence down to the sedum. I had mercy on those guys and left them build their webs as it seemed the butterflies and bees were making their way around them.

    Like you, I have seen snakes, bugs and thingies never before seen, and you know what? I like it… no, I love it! Thanks for reminding me, once again, to appreciate nature, Rusty.

  • Forget the HOA. Most are catty and snobbish anyway ;-)))

    The slogan ‘Go Green’ is not a philosophy purchased off a store shelf. It’s a conscience daily choice of actions which means making a change that truly effects our surroundings. I know when I’m swinging the Pulaski away at a clump of crab grass, frustrating at the blisters and the meanness of the situation, I remember just how easy it is just to spray something and be done with it.

    The reward of it all comes for me at the moment I am back from the nursery lining up all the new plants, and the little pollinators start showing up to check out and sample the newest cuisine. Suddenly the blisters don’t matter anymore, nor the fact I don’t have French nails. I know what I am doing is right, whole, and sound. The proof is all around, and air is full of the joy of it.

    If more people could catch the drift and make their yards little havens of sanctuary for wildlife, then it would be fashionable to have dandy lions and clover in the lawn, with a messy border of mixed jumbled flowers.

    Just maybe it would allow some people to relax a little, breath, and enjoy life a bit more.

    But then again, I think us bee girls are just a hint different, and I revel in it!!

  • Rusty,

    Well said. I have been around long enough to remember when each farm had fence rows with (weeds) where rabbits and pheasants and quails could hide. I jumped one of the largest whitetail buck I ever saw bedded by a fence.Now everything is cut down and clean but the wildlife that once called it home are gone. The native Americans use to believe it bad luck to kill a spider and knew all living things serve a purpose.

    I let the weeds grow wherever I can and have enjoyed seeing more wildlife on my small acre. It means yes we have more snakes around my wife’s pond but as you say everything seems to even out. Tonight I listened to an owl that hangs out around our place. A good way to go to sleep and control mice.

  • Thank you for this beautiful description, Rusty! I hope one day, I, too, will own a piece of land that I can keep clean and safe for my bees, birds and other creatures.

  • Thank you for the great post. My wife Robin and I have also lived in the same home for twenty years, over the years we have been treated by new
    birds, native plants and such.

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