Can a garden be too bee-friendly?

Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist June 11

Books, Web sites, whole organizations are in place to show you how to draw bees and other pollinators to your garden. But what if you don’t want them?

The notion might seem ridiculous to many of us: Gardeners are by nature worried about nature and all its contemporary ills. We can install plants that will throw a lifeline to beleaguered honeybees, bumblebees and butterflies while creating gardens that are natural, floriferous and free of pesticides. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Cnidophobiacs — folks who harbor a fear of insect stings.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

A bee or wasp sting will induce one of three basic reactions in people. For most of us, the sting is a painful but localized event, and the pain and swelling will recede in a matter of hours. Some people get a moderate reaction that causes a limb to swell or hives to appear away from the sting site, and the symptoms last for days. A third group faces a life-threatening, systemic reaction called anaphylaxis. A person might develop a severe reaction even if previous stings evoked a milder one.

Read: Idenntifying bees and wasps

Still, it is fair to say that the fear of getting stung is greater than the risk. Less than 1 percent of people who are stung go into anaphylactic shock. An estimated 40 people die each year in the United States from insect stings, about the same number as from lightning strikes. More than 30,000 are killed in automobile accidents yearly. We blithely grab our car keys but grow anxious about getting stung in the garden. People who are allergic to a yellow jacket sting might not be to honeybee stings, but that distinction is often lost.

“I have seen people with a strong or even local reaction become hysterical and consider that a systemic reaction,” said John Oppenheimer, an allergist and clinical professor of medicine at Rutgers University. “No one likes being stung, and [stings] are very frightening,” he said.

I ’m a bee lover, and I do everything I can to identify, understand and help the dozens of species of bees and wasps that are drawn to my garden. I dislike yellow jackets but know other wasps as a class gardeners call “beneficials” — tiny helpers that take care of a host of plant pests, from aphids to destructive larvae.

If we were being utterly rational, we would avoid gardening not because of bees but because of other arthropods — namely mosquitoes, ticks, biting flies and some midges, which seek us out to suck our blood.

Recently, a reader with a bee-phobic relative e-mailed to ask whether it is possible to design a garden that would draw fewer pollinators. This idea runs counter to prevailing ecological sensibilities, as a garden designer named Louis Raymond discovered when he was asked to put together a bee-less landscape for a client worried about her grandchildren getting stung while playing outside.

He found that there were few, if any, reliable lists of plants that would dissuade bees.

“What I realized pretty soon was that there was nothing you could do to repel any of these animals. What you can do is plant things that aren’t of interest,” he said.

Because bees and wasps need nectar, and some species harvest pollen as well, Raymond first turned to plants that don’t rely on such pollinators to reproduce. These include grasses and sedges; wind-pollinated shade trees such as oaks and maples; ferns; bamboos; and a host of conifers, small and large.

Of nectar plants, he uses those whose flower form evolved for pollination by creatures other than bees — his list includes flowering tobacco, trumpet vine, yuccas, bananas, palms and hardy, ground-hugging woodland gingers that are designed for slug pollination.

He uses hostas, grown primarily for their foliage, and makes a point of cutting off their emerging flower stalks. You could apply the same principle to other foliage plants, heucheras, brunneras, coleus, cannas and liriope, for example.

The practice of turning certain trees and shrubs into perennials — by chopping them to the ground each spring — is another technique for not drawing bees. Candidates include catalpas, cotinus and robinias, which if grown this way attain the size of medium to large shrubs but don’t flower. This is getting into the realm of high horticulture, but another approach Raymond uses is to plant things that bloom when it is too cold to go outside — witch hazels, edgeworthias, epimediums and hellebores.

The effect is a garden that might have less color but is engagingly different. “It has fewer flowers; there are no roses, no dahlias, but there’s lots of texture, lots of different foliage size, more species that are less often seen,” said Raymond, whose company, Renaissance Gardening, is based in Hopkinton, R.I. “They should be in every garden regardless of the concerns for bees.”

He concedes that a lawn will draw bees, not for the grass but the inevitable weeds, including dandelions and clover.

Many vegetables produce bee-luring flowers — peas, beans, tomatoes and peppers, for example — but leafy greens, sweet corn and root vegetables don’t need pollinators. Just don’t let them bolt to flower, and cut off potatoes’ blossoms.

A nectarless landscape will have fewer bees, but it won’t necessarily solve the problem. Many wasp species will find the aphid and scale insects in trees and shrubs. In addition — this is my warning, not Raymond’s — honeybees are thirsty creatures and are drawn to water. This includes fish ponds, ornamental pools, birdbaths and clotheslines, if people still put damp clothing out to dry.

Mace Vaughan, pollinator program director for the conservation group Xerces Society, said that even with what Raymond calls a “bee-wise” garden, “to a certain degree they are still going to be there.”

The greatest risk of being stung, he said, is to find yourself in the vicinity of their nests, which they are programmed to defend.

Lorraine Mocco, a mother of seven grown children, found this out the hard way in August 2009 when she was mowing part of her 22-acre rural property in central New Jersey.

Lawn mowers and ground-nesting yellow jackets don’t mix. Oppenheimer, Mocco’s allergist, said research suggests that there is something about the heat and vibration of gas-powered lawn mowers that entices bees and wasps to attack.

Mocco received three stings from disturbed yellow jackets. She had been stung before, but this time her body reacted differently. As she returned to her house, she felt flushed. She jumped in the shower to cool off but noticed hives all over her body. Then she lost her ability to see colors. Her husband, Peter, rushed her to the hospital, where she was put on an IV and given steriods and other medications. She heard a nurse and a doctor talk about putting a tube into her windpipe. Mocco was convinced she was going to die. Finally, she responded to the treatment.

As much as she loved to garden, the episode changed the way she lived, and her relationship with her property. “I became very frightened of getting stung,” she said. She decided to give up gardening.

The self-imposed exile from the gardens, woods and fields around her historic farmhouse, she said, left her “devastated.”

Oppenheimer recommended a series of injections to build up her immunity to wasp venom (she was not allergic to bee stings). The first shot represented one-10,000th of a wasp sting. After six months, the injections amounted to two full stings. Here’s the rub: Monthly maintenance shots go on for a long time, as much as five years. “I’m at 41 / 2 years; it’s quite a commitment,” Mocco said. “But I’m pretty convinced it’s working.”

It wasn’t until last summer that she felt comfortable in the garden again. She was later stung by a wasp and reacted normally to it. She does carry two emergency syringes of epinephrine in case of another systemic reaction.

“I planted tulips and they came up [this spring], and it was just inspiring to me,” she said. “I was afraid to plant too many flowering things. With the therapy I really felt it had changed my life. This was working for me. It gave me my garden back.”

Read: Idenntifying bees and wasps

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