Pollination: Establishing a Bee Pasture
Because wild bees are valuable crop pollinators, growers should always encourage their numbers. One way is to improve bee nutrition (ultimately, increasing their populations) by planting or encouraging more-or-less permanent bee pasture near the crop of interest. Especially for bumble bees, it is best if the planting provides an unbroken succession of bloom.
First, decide your objectives and the length of time you expect to need the pasture. This will help determine the level of inputs (labor, materials, etc.) and the type bee pasture you need.
For our purposes, there are three types of forage areas.
Single-year productive bee pastures are made of annual clovers, wildflowers, and ornamentals that collectively bloom for most of one forage season. They require reseeding every year, usually in late November. These forage areas can be set up easily with inexpensive seed, a simple plowing schedule, and little extra maintenance. On the negative side, they require considerable acreage to provide full-season bloom coverage, and, in Georgia, they are easily stressed by mid-summer heat which can cause up to ten weeks of forage dearth.
Multi-year productive bee pastures have perennial blooming flowers and some woody vines and bushes. Some of these plants bloom lightly all season, lightly for a brief time, or lavishly for a brief time. These pastures require more work and advance planning, but they give the grower optimum control of successional bloom.
Because perennials have diverse flowering dates and are easily replaced, the multi-year pasture is versatile. You can add or remove plants to fill in bloom gaps on your calendar. Material and installation costs are greater than for single-year pastures, but a planting should be good for at least five years. Its greatest advantage is that the entire bee forage season can be covered with a diverse selection of plants in small, otherwise unproductive, areas such as fence rows. On the negative side, most herbaceous perennials are planted as grown seedlings which cost more and require eventual weeding and dividing.
Permanent productive bee pastures have permanent trees, bushes, and a few woody perennials. Plantings can last over 30 years, making plant selection a critical task. In the long run, these woody plants and trees provide the most dependable source of pollens and nectars, but productivity varies year by year.
Initially, permanent production pastures are expensive to set up, considering the investment in bushes and small trees. But, in the long run they are economical because they need little or no plowing, weeding, or fertilizing. This type of forage area is best for fruit and vegetable growers who want permanent, large, wild bee populations. As with all things, you get what you pay for, and if permanent, large bee populations is an important goal, this pasture is best.
See your county Extension agent for detailed information on plant selection and planting. Flowering plants that are good sources of pollen and nectar in the Southeast are listed in Plants for Year-Round Bee Forage. Reference books and other sources of information about annuals, wildflowers, perennials, bushes, trees, and vines are also listed in Resources: Bees and Beekeeping Reference Books and Resources: Bee Supplies.