A growing gardening trend is to plant pollinator gardens, often using native plants, to attract and feed bees and butterflies. This is occurring as a response to the news that our bees and butterflies are quickly disappearing. This realization likely started because honey bee farmers were faced with major financial losses as a result of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) starting in the early 2000s. Around the same time, folks began noticing that Monarch butterflies were in trouble. It wasn’t long till we also began to realize that our native bees were disappearing, too.
Honey bees are native to Europe and are really just another form of agricultural livestock, like cattle or hogs or poultry. Their loss, though economically difficult for honey producers, would not have the same ecological impact as the loss of our native bee species. After all, we likely have as many as 4,000 species of bees native to North America and these insects are critical for the successful pollination of most of our flowering plants – including much of our food. Many of our native bees are specialists, relying on one or a very few different kinds of plants. (Honey bees, on the other hand, are generalists – they will collect pollen from just about any plant.)
So to “save the bees” people have started growing native flowers, and creating pollinator gardens. These can be small backyard oases, restored farm fields, or educational gardens in parks, commercial areas or in school yards. However, a concern that often pops up – especially in school yards – is that with all those flowers, children are going to get stung.
People have a natural aversion to bee stings. And for good reason – they hurt. Some folks are severely allergic and must carry an epi-pen when they go outdoors.
When I was about 4 years old, my parents rented a farmhouse out in the country. At the end of a very long laneway (exceptionally long for a four-year-old) were two old, old apple trees. I saw what I thought were yellow “manure-flies” (at four I wasn’t very discerning). They were swarming between the two trees and I thought it would be fund to run through them and scatter them. My little four-year-old legs could not carry me up the long hill to the house fast enough and I got many nasty stings. Fortunately I don’t seem to be overly allergic.
Fast forward 15 years, and I am a counselor at a summer camp and am tasked with removing the bumble bee nest under the front step of one of the cabins. As I bent over to observe the results of my destruction, a bumble bee found my backside. I literally could not sit on that cheek for a week.
Fast forward another 50 years and I had to remove a homemade compost bin (made from old pallets) so an arborist could take down a couple of large mulberry trees. Halfway through the pile I discovered that 3 different species of flying insect had taken up residence in the pile – one looked like some form of bee, but the other two were obviously wasps (I didn’t stick around long enough to make a proper ID). My old 65-year-old legs could not carry me up the hill in my yard to the house fast enough to avoid getting a number of stings.
These three incidents are probably the most memorable of my encounters with bees and wasps, but by no means are they the only times I’ve been stung. And yet I plant lots of pollinator gardens in my yard and even though I get up very close and personal while I’m photographing the bees, I have never been stung or even threatened while around the flowers. (The one exception was when I inadvertently rested my weight on my hand on top of a ground nesting bee trying to exit its home – however, the sting was no worse than a fly bite and never even swelled up. I took it as simply a warning to “get off me”.)
So what is the real risk of getting stung around a pollinator garden? I would contend that it is exceedingly low. You are probably more likely to get stung walking down the sidewalk or opening your garden shed door. This is for a number of reasons.
First of all, most of our native bees are solitary. Many don’t even have stingers. And when they’re busy foraging amongst the flowers, they are not paying any mind to the large mammal (the human) that is nearby. This holds true even for the bees with stingers, such as honey bees and bumble bees (only the females of these species sting, by the way). Bees normally only sting if they feel threatened or if they are accidentally (or deliberately) molested or provoked.
Several wasps and hornets, on the other hand, live in colonies and are very territorial. They will sometimes sting if you simply get too close to their nest. (The yellow “manure flies” and the insects in my compost pile that stung me were all almost certainly wasps of some type and were simply protecting their colony.) Paper wasps, mud wasps, etc. like to build their nests in human-made structures – like your garden shed, or your garden-hose hanger, or even on your garage eaves. This is where you’ll most likely encounter these territorial insects, and where you’re most likely to get stung.
Another reason you’re unlikely to be stung around pollinator gardens is that bees and most wasps have very different diets. Many wasps are carnivores, filling their need for protein from insects (or in the fall, your picnic dinner). So the critters that are apt to sting you just for getting too close are not the ones that are going to be busy around your pollinator garden. (Some wasps DO hang around flowerbeds, drinking the nectar, but I have never found any of these to be the least bit aggressive.)
So, if your child’s school, or your employer, or your neighbour, decides to put in a pollinator garden to help stem the decline of these extremely important insects, you needn’t worry about getting stung. A little bit of care and some education can make this a win-win scenario. And if you or your child is highly allergic – just remember to carry your epi-pen. And keep in mind that the pollinator garden is a very unlikely source of bee stings.
Happy Native Plant Gardening.