It’s time to get ready for birds, bees

Press Democrat
Article published – Feb 23, 2008

Spring is still a month away, but it isn’t too early to turn our attention to birds and bees. They never abandon the garden completely, but their numbers swell as the weather warms, more so if we entice them with the right food and housing. To do it right takes some planning.

Attracting birds has long been an adjunct to gardening, perhaps because they create greater flourishes of color and song. But bees have lately been garnering more attention because of their declining populations and our worries over what that portends for commercial growers and backyard gardeners alike. None of us can withstand the loss of honeybee pollinators.

We heard last year that honeybees were imported across state and national boundaries to pollinate several commercial crops after the mysterious deaths of bees in and away from their hives. Borrowed bees seem be a short-term solution, but questions remain about long-term effects.

We haven’t heard much about diseases that were brought in with those bees or what we backyard gardeners could be doing to promote the well-being of dwindling hives.

These concerns and more will be taken up at an all-day Bee Symposium — “The Honeybee, Pollinators, and the Environment” — featuring expert beekeepers and educators March 8 at the Summerfield Waldorf School and Farm, 655 Willowside Road, Santa Rosa.

Tickets are available for $25 at Beekind, the honey and beekeeping store in Sebastopol, and by mail before March 1 by phoning 824-2905 or e-mailing Tickets at the door are $30.

Gardeners and beekeepers alike will be particularly interested in hearing Michael Thiele, who teaches beekeeping at the Melissa Garden honeybee sanctuary in Healdsburg, which will open to the public later this spring.

Other speakers include Katharina Ullmann of UC Berkeley and the Xerces Society, an expert on innovative approaches and ecological strategies in maintaining hives; and Dr. Ron Fessenden on how honey affects human health and facilitates sleep. For more information, visit

Separate from this symposium, Master Gardener April Lance will present three Saturday morning workshops on honeybees specifically for home gardeners. She’ll be at the Rincon Valley library March 22 at 10 a.m., at the Windsor library April 26 at 10:30 a.m., and at the Rohnert Park library May 3 at 10:30 a.m. Master Gardener workshops are free.

Unless we manage hives, there is little we can do to provide a home for honeybees in our gardens, but we can put out nesting bee boards or blocks for alfalfa leafcutter bees. They are the primary pollinators of alfalfa crops, but they also visit sweet clovers, wild mint and other species.

Bee boards can be purchased at many garden shops or made at home, but construction must satisfy bees’ specific likes and needs — overall size as well as depth, diameter and smoothness of holes — so be sure to acquire details beforehand if you decide to make one.

Providing nectar for bees is easier. Different species are attracted to different types of flowers, generally those that suit their tongue length, but nearly all home in on blue, yellow and ultraviolet hues.

Home sweet home

Providing for birds has long appealed to gardeners, but what’s key is putting out the right house for birds seeking a nest. Humans are often tempted by the cutest birdhouses or ones that match their garden style, but that’s a little backward. Birdhouses can double as garden art, but if they aren’t functional, birds will shun them.

Places such as Wild Birds Unlimited in downtown Santa Rosa can advise you on which design to purchase, but if you plan to make your own, you’ll, once again, have to consult a reliable source so that the house dimensions, roof, entry hole and mounting site are suitable for the particular species you want to attract.

Housekeeping enters the picture, too. Structures with hinged top, side, or bottom are easiest to clean, and cleaning is a must — birds won’t live in someone else’s mess.

Right now is an excellent time to put up a birdhouse because cavity nesters tend to arrive early from their migration and will be looking for a place to call home. But because birds often must replace a failed nest or are able to raise a second brood, they may take up residence as late as June.

Food shortage

Besides leaving garden perennials standing to protect them from cold damage, it’s a good idea to delay pruning so that resident birds and early arrivals can forage on seeds.

One year-round resident, the hummingbird, much prefers insects or nectar, however, which are in short supply during these late winter weeks.

If you want to feed hummers, bird enthusiasts advise that you be disciplined about it or don’t feed them at all. Hummingbirds that are attracted to empty or dirty feeders suffer more than we may think. Feeders generally require cleaning and refilling every two to four days.

You can provide natural nectar at this time of year by planting winter-flowering buddleia (Buddleia asiatica), flowering quince (Chaenomeles), correa, heath (Erica), and flowering currant (Ribes).

Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher and author, writes the weekly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Write to her at P.O. Box 910, Santa Rosa, 95402; or send fax to 664-9476.