Let Me Tell You ‘Bout the Birds and the Bees

In Upstate New York, where I grew up, water was so ubiquitous that I didn’t notice it. Grass needed to be cut once a week, trees didn’t need to be watered, and our property was surrounded by woods and fields. The soundtrack to summer was the chirping and warbling of birds and the drone of bees. I took all of that bounty for granted until I bought a home in southwest Santa Fe (or what was southwest Santa Fe 15 years ago). I looked around my yard, which had been cleverly landscaped by the previous owner with a mix of dirt, goat heads and tumbleweeds, and thought to myself, “Something is missing.” As I built an oasis for myself, adding flower beds, bird feeders, outdoor drinking areas for the cat and brightly painted patio furniture and garden walls, I noticed that birds and bees moved in as well. Now I can look out my bedroom window and watch a hummingbird sitting on her nest, and when I nap in the hammock I can hear the bees.

The rules of attraction are fairly simple: have things in your garden that birds and bees love.

"#1 Sunflower Lane" Pat Woodall Fine Art, Taos

“#1 Sunflower Lane” Pat Woodall Fine Art, Taos

“The single biggest attraction [for birds] is water,” said Roberta Beyer of fatfinch.com, an online avian accessory store based in Albuquerque. “It’s like a magnet.” If you can make the water move, that’s even better—the birds can see and hear it from a greater distance. Active water also stays cleaner, harboring fewer of the parasites that can harm birds. Bird baths, fountains and ponds are all inviting to birds, and the water attracts a wider range of birds than feeders alone. (Bees also need the water; they use it for cooling their hives.) A few rocks or floating twigs added to your bird bath or fountain just above the water line give the bees a foothold while they collect water.

Bird feeders and hummingbird feeders are fun, because not only do they attract birds, but they attract them to where you want to see them, such as your porch or outside the window where you drink your coffee in the morning. Make sure to hang feeders in an area that has some protection from cats and wind.  Hummingbirds, Roberta told me, will remember from year to year what hook you hang the feeder on, and once you’ve let them know that you’re open for business, you’ll be on their route each year. I asked her if it’s the same hummingbird I’ve been seeing for years in the nest outside my window, and she assured me it is. “She’ll keep coming back as long as you leave the nest alone.” Hummingbirds also send out an early scout, so you should already have your feeders out!

I spoke with Terry Smith, who used to keep bees, and asked him for some tips. His top suggestion was to keep fruit trees. “Fruit trees love bees, and bees love fruit trees,” he said. “Plant an apple tree and just stand by and watch them come.” He noted that when he had his bees, he had apples by the cartful. He also told me that bees have a three-mile radius, and when a bee finds a good source of nectar and pollen, it returns to the hive, where it does an elaborate ritual dance that transmits the direction and distance of the source to the other bees. So there really is a bee out there saying to his mates, “Caitlin planted some Russian sage and some bee balm, and she has an apple tree. It’s this way—let’s go!”

Native plants are important to birds and bees, as is variety. One of the reasons we’re losing bees is monoculture farming, in which there is only one crop to be seen for miles on end. Bees need a range of flowers and plants in order to maintain their health and health of the hive. When laying out your garden, plant flowers of different shapes, colors and varieties—preferably arranged in clumps rather than in solitary fashion. Bees are particularly attracted to purple, blue and violet. It’s also important to have a combo of plants that flower at different times so that there’s something available the entire growing season. Native plants are better than hybrids, which have less pollen and nectar. (Of course, they also take less maintenance to grow.) When planting for bees, bear in mind that they prefer sun to shade, and they like to be protected from the wind. I have lavender and salvia along a sunny wall, and they are very popular with both the bees and the hummingbirds.

When you’re in your beautiful garden surrounded by colorful native plants, the sound of fountain gurgling, birds in the trees and bees buzzing around, you should keep certain caveats in mind. You don’t get to pick and choose which birds you attract. If you invite one bird, you invite them all. And the expression, “The early bird gets the worm”? Well, birds take that to heart. They get up early. Very early. And they like to sing about it. The beautiful hummingbird outside my window? She’s also very messy. Sit down to a nice dinner or lunch al fresco, and the bees will assume that they are invited guests. But I can live will all of that. The birds are quiet in the afternoon, so I can take my hammock nap then. A broom, a hose and some window cleaner take care of the mess from the hummingbird. And a few bees have never ruined my picnic; if they show too great an interest in the strawberries or the wine, I always give them their own dish off to the side and politely ask them to buzz off.

 Story by Caitlin Richards

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