Bee allergies can make the garden an intimidating place. Even the most dedicated gardener would be afraid to step foot in the garden in defiance of a frightening bee allergy. It is important to remember though, that bees are a significant part of our environment and need to be treated with respect and some distance. Especially in light of the mysterious decline in their numbers, it must be stated that bees are vital pollinators and their well-being should be fostered. Nevertheless, avoidance of these necessary insects is crucial for some, even for gardeners who are aware of the critical role they play.
Bees are just one of many plant pollinators, such as birds, moths, flies and even the wind. By looking carefully, you will find that wind pollinated plants have small fuzzy flowers without petals. Grasses and many trees, like maples, beeches and conifers, can be included here. Pollinators are suited to the plants they pollinate, as with hummingbirds whose long beaks are used to dip into honeysuckle and trumpet vines.
Bee free gardens
Thinking a bit outside the box by using foliage that does not attract bees is the first step. Hardy plant material that can survive a Zone 5 winter includes ornamental grasses, which have options for any size garden, some as short as six inches, others as tall as 10 feet. Ornamental grasses bend and wave in the wind and bring birds in for seed in the winter. They do have plumes (wind pollinated flowers) that are quite attractive, both as new plumes and as they mature and change colors. Other hardy choices include smoke bushes, sambucus, and other shrubs with colorful young foliage. To keep the shrub in full color and reasonably sized, in addition to keeping the flowers away, prune them about five inches from the ground each spring. Hostas are great plants for shade with an unbelievable number of leaf variations. Simply remove the flower buds before they start to bloom to avoid attracting bees.
Some tender plants that would not survive a Zone 5 winter can also be considered, including some vegetables. Cardoon, which resembles a big artichoke, is an eye-catching biennial with large thistle-like silver foliage, making it a great structure plant. Swiss chard is not only tasty; this vegetable also has remarkable foliage. There are varieties with colored mid-ribs in red, white and even a “rainbow” version with a mix of yellow, red, orange and purple. Parsley creates what seems to be a mini forest of dark green trees; best of all, when this biennial flowers, it is a host plant for butterflies.
Other suitable tender plants include cannas. Yes, they do flower and consequently attract bees, but what about their lush foliage? Some varieties, like Wyoming with its dark bronze foliage, or Tropicanna’s variegated foliage of orange, yellow, green, and bronze, can be used by simply pruning off the flower buds and letting the foliage stand alone. Bananas have appealing foliage, with some types having bronze leaves, but even the regular green leaves are incredible. These need to be brought inside for the winter. Palm trees are an exotic, fun choice for the garden or patio, such as the fan palm with its distinctive leaves, or the Adonidia. Caladiums, alocasia, alocasia, also known as Elephant Ears, come in various leaf sizes, from the caladium at just a few inches across, to the larger-than-life three to five-foot leaves of alocasia and colocasia. All need warm weather to thrive. Angel Trumpets (Brugmansia) are easy to grow in large containers and are a fitting flowering option for those with an allergy to bees. The plant drips with large, nearly twelve-inch, fragrant pendant flowers. In their native tropics, nocturnal moths pollinate these beauties.
Avoid growing fruit trees as the flowers and ripe and rotting fruit attract both bees and wasps. Plant bee-free plants where you live: close to the house, along the sidewalk, deck, and patio. Bees are attracted to flowers of bright blue, yellow, orange, purple, and white and will fly to red flowers last. Bees are looking for nectar and pollen for food, and are not discerning when it comes to flowers or any other sugary substance, so be careful with fruit juices, soda pop, and even drinks with alcohol. Remember, even the garden seemingly most devoid of bees isn’t entirely safe. If your allergy is severe, always carry the EpiPen or anything you need to treat a sting.
There is no promise for a bee-free garden, but if you consciously try not to attract them by using alternative plants and fancy foliage, anyone can be safe out in the garden. Even in their absence though, never forget that bees are essential creatures for pollination; what would we do without the apples or cucumbers that require these industrious insects to fruit? However, when it becomes necessary to avoid them, with some careful planning, you can create a garden that doesn’t need them but is nonetheless amazing. You just have to be willing to think about it, be plant smart and “bee” careful.
Barbara Arnold is green corps coordinator at Franklin Park Conservatory.