By Paul Thomas
Hummingbird and butterfly gardens are quite popular with home gardeners. Each year, we get a great many requests for information about what to plant to bring hummingbirds and butterflies swirling around. Remember, whatever attracts hummingbirds and butterflies will attract bees. Not just a few bees either. Scads of bees!
While bees are our best pollinators (almost all plants depend on bees to reproduce), and having bees means you’re living in a relatively pollution-free environment, bees are not welcome in everyone’s garden. Many people have serious allergic reactions to bee stings. While this number (0.4 percent) is small when compared to the total population, those who are sensitive are always concerned when they see any kind of bee.
Before you mow off that butterfly garden and tell the hummingbirds to go south, consider that most bee stings are not from bumblebees or even honeybees. The No. 1 culprit is the yellow jacket. These ground dwelling bees are scavengers and extremely aggressive. They are attracted to anything sweet or rotting.
Another nasty creature is the carpenter bee. Carpenter bees are aggressive, unpredictable and cause damage to wood when they borrow in the spring to make nests. If you have these pests, hire a professional exterminator to rid your property of them.
Wasps and hornets are attracted to flowers also, but like honeybees and bumblebees, rarely sting while feeding.
There are dozens of species of true bees in Georgia. Most are small and lack sufficient size in relation to fingers and noses to cause a problem. In my 15 years of developing butterfly and hummingbird gardens, neither I nor my active teenage boys have ever been stung.
Follow these common sense rules, and you’ll be less likely to get stung, too:
Avoid brightly colored clothing. Blue, yellow, orange, white, purple and flower-like patterns are very attractive to bees, whereas red, browns, greens and grays are not. Many perfumes are attractive to bees, as are essences of fruit. Sometimes what you eat for breakfast can attract a bee.
Move slowly through the garden, especially if you are working on or near flowers the bees are feeding on. Rapid, repetitive movement seems to agitate bees.
Watch your hands. If you brush up against a bee and knock it off the flower it’s feeding on, it may cling to you as an instinctual reaction. By doing nothing, the bee will almost always reorient itself and fly off. If the bee is attracted to you for some reason and lands on you, freeze and give it some time to leave on its own. Never try to rapidly hit, swat or pick off the bee. If you must, a slow, direct, sweeping brushing off with a newspaper or leafy branch will usually do the trick.
Never go into a garden or lawn with bare feet. Stepping on a honeybee in the clover is a very common way to get stung.
Be observant for bee nests. Bumblebees and yellow jackets rear their young underground in shallow nests. Bumblebees prefer grassy areas at the edge of wood or near large rocks. Yellow jackets seem to like sunny, soft soil protected by tufts of grass or ground cover plants. Look for bees flying back and forth in the same direction near the ground. It almost always signal a colony is nearby.
Try to select plants that don’t attract stinging insects. Surprisingly, many of the most offending plants are natives. Our native Joe Pye weed attracts wasps and yellow jackets like a magnet. Monarda, Echinaceae and our native azaleas attract bees. Many ornamental imports also attract bees.
Most trees and shrubs aren’t bee magnets as they rely on wind pollination. Pines, all evergreens, such as yews, cleyera, youpon hollies, all ferns, sedges and grasses are usually free from bee visits. Flowering plants less likely to keep bees around include cultivars of the genus dianthus, daffodils, coreopsis, daylilies, flowering vinca, tulips, crocus, geraniums, columbines, lilies, chrysanthemums, marigolds, strawflowers and dwarf zinnias.
(Paul Thomas is a horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)