It’s January. Why talk about bees now? One good reason is that February is a big month for beekeeping education. European honeybees are arguably the world’s most famous insect: they’re fuzzy, buzzing, and loveable, as well as environmental icons and rock stars! Around 2006, beekeepers started reporting huge losses of honey bee colonies, which rang the alarm bells worldwide.
Now, European honeybees have a whole industry working to sustain them, like our guest today beekeeper Don Snoeyink…but what about the wild bees? With between 3000 to 4,000 species of native bees in North America, they play an important role in pollination. Non-native honeybees were brought to North America by the early European colonists in the 17th century. These are the bees we hear about in the news with “colony collapses” disease and mites and climate change issues. The presence of bees is crucial, as scientists estimate that one in three bites of food we eat are possible only because of pollinators like honeybees, native bees, flies, beetles, ants, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds.
This time of year, beekeepers like today’s guest Don Snoeyink work on “rendering” beeswax using the wax produced by the worker bees for the purpose of capping their cells of honey. Beekeepers also work on making candles and skin care products. Not least of all, they also spend time doing something that Don likes to make, mead! Though it is often called “honey wine,” mead is actually fermented honey, made from nothing more than honey, water, and yeast. The finished mead ranges from 8-20% ABV. You will find just like the taste of honey it has layers of complexity.
If you are looking to attract bees to your garden, plant purple, violet, and blue flowers. Though, as Don tells us in our interview, bees see ultraviolet light, so it’s not so much the color we see that matters as much as the color they see. Flower fragrance plays a role as well: the honeybee’s sense of smell is so sensitive that it can detect the trace of a scent in flight. They are equipped to effectively and efficiently locate pollen-rich flowers. The sense of smell is important for honeybees to survive, reproduce, communicate, find a good food source, and keep their hive healthy.
Looking for a list of plants that support bees? Here are some of our favorites:
First out of the gate….the important early bloomers in spring:
Dandelions – red maple – pussy willow – crocus – winter aconite (Eranthus hyemalis) – witchhazel – snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) – chickweed – Siberian squill (Scilla sp.)
Other season-long favorites:
Anise hyssop – the Meant to Bee series from Proven Winners, as well as the classic ‘Blue Fortune’ and ‘Blue Boa) (known botanically as Agastache, which comes from the Greek for “many spikes”) – Pugster and Lo and Behold butterfly bushes – the Rockin’ series of salvia: Playin the Blues, Deep Purple, Fuchsia, and Blue Suede Shoes – ornamental catmints (aka Nepeta), like Cat’s Pajamas and Cat’s Meow – Gaura – Verbena bonariensis – Aronia – Beyond Midnight and Sunshine Blue bluebeard (aka Caryopteris) – Vanilla Spice and Sugartina ‘Crystalina’ clethra – Kodiak diervilla – Gatsby Pink oakleaf hydrangea – Sunny Boulevard St John’s Wort – Itea – Oso Easy roses – lilacs (especially Bloomerang reblooming lilac) – and let’s not forget the Temple of Bloom seven-son flower, which we covered back in October.
Today’s word of the day is sonicate/sonication: to disrupt something by exposure to high-frequency sound waves, like a bumblebee’s vibration to collect pollen.
Why: We’ve got two reasons for selecting Purple Pillar rose of Sharon as our featured shrub in Plants on Trial today. One, as you may have heard on the previous few episodes, Purple Pillar rose of Sharon is the 2023 Landscape Shrub of the Year. This designation is reserved for plants that are excellent problem solvers for professional landscapers, which means they’re generally excellent problem solvers for people who are looking for plants to enhance their home landscape as well. In the case of Purple Pillar, it does everything that you love about rose of Sharon: low maintenance, long blooming, drought tolerant – but it does it in just a fraction of the space. Purple Pillar is a fastigiate rose of Sharon, which means it naturally grows in a narrow columnar shape. As such, it takes up just a tiny bit of precious yard real estate – at just 4-5’ wide, it takes up half the space of a conventional rose of Sharon. That makes it perfect for any landscaping project, and especially space-saving hedges, screening off an unsightly view, or a distinctive specimen. It’s really useful and beautiful.
The second reason I selected Purple Pillar rose of Sharon for today’s plant on trial is because of our bee theme. Rose of Sharon is one of my absolute favorite plants for bees, and anyone who has had the pleasure of being around a rose of Sharon on a sunny summer day knows exactly why: bees positively gorge themselves on this plant, getting so completely covered in pollen that they can sometimes barely fly away! Bumblebees are the ones that frequent rose of Sharon most, but you will also see honeybees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and an array of other flying things visit it. Not only are the satellite dish-shaped flowers the perfect shape for attracting these pollinators, the summer bloom time is very long, so a rose of Sharon serves its visitors for months.
Purple Pillar rose of Sharon is also a low seed variety – it produces little to no seed. This means that it won’t put out a bunch of nuisance seedlings that you’ll have to pull up from all over your yard. But not to worry, it still has plenty of pollen and nectar to offer bees, it’s just that seed doesn’t develop when pollination occurs. Like all roses of Sharon, Purple Pillar is only hardy to USDA zone 5, so it’s not a good choice in colder climates. That doesn’t mean that our friends in USDA zone 4 can’t enjoy something similar, though – for them, we recommend perennial hibiscus, like the Summerific series from Proven Winners perennials. These are herbaceous plants that die all the way back to the ground every year instead of growing as a woody plant like rose of Sharon does, and they’re a bit hardier. They have even larger flowers, and while they don’t have quite as mesmerizing an effect on bees as rose of Sharon do, they are definitely worth growing.
Who: Purple Pillar rose of Sharon came to us from the Netherlands, by way of Spain. The first plant was noticed at a nursery in Spain back in the early 2000s, where the growers appreciated its narrow, upright habit in grafting tree-form roses of Sharon. Eventually, Mario van Aart who owned a nursery in Boskoop, the Netherlands. Like so many interesting new plants, it often takes the right person to come across the random genetic mutation that produced Purple Pillar rose of Sharon and identify its potential for the landscape and garden market.
How to grow: Rose of Sharon is one of the most popular summer flowering shrubs because it is so easy to care for. Just plant it in full sun, at least six hours a day. You can plant it in part shade, but you need to be aware that it won’t bloom as much, the flower color is likely to be on the muddy side, and the plant will develop a more a more sparse and open habit. And even though rose of Sharon is hardy to only USDA zone 5, it’s quite heat tolerant and thrives even in USDA zone 9 – although, typically, when you come across any rose of Sharon in the American South, it’s usually going under the name “Althea,” not rose of Sharon.
Rose of Sharon bloom on new wood so can be pruned in spring, but they don’t typically need a lot of pruning. Once yours starts reaching maturity, it is sometimes a good idea to take out some of the oldest stems, but it’s not strictly necessary. And, like we mentioned on last week’s show, rose of Sharon is late to emerge in spring, so don’t worry when you don’t see signs of life. It’s perfectly fine to prune while it’s dormant in spring, if you do choose to prune.
One thing that a lot of people don’t realize about rose of Sharon is that they have an unusually high nutrient need. They will go yellow and look sickly pretty easily, so if you have lean soil, plan to fertilize using a rose fertilizer in early spring, just as the ground begins to thaw, and then again in early summer at least. If you wish, you can fertilize as often as once a month from early spring through late July.
Do you have a garden question for us? We’d be glad to help! E-mail us, or click the “contact” tab above.
Lyn writes: I was gifted several iris rhizomes for Christmas. They were purchased online. The company recommends planting them late summer. That sounds like way to long wait. I don’t know if the rhizomes will last that long. I live in West Michigan. I am looking for other ways to get them started. Please give me some options, even if they are “outside the box.”
This timing is definitely not ideal, but situations like Lyn’s are becoming increasingly common as plants gain popularity on mass-merchant sites that simply ship orders as they are placed rather than the proper time. So, you have to do the best you can with what you have, and that means going ahead and potting the iris rhizomes up into containers with fresh potting mix, giving them a little bit of water, and keeping them in a cool, bright, airy spot that won’t experience really cold temperatures – some place that never dips too much below freezing. Keep a close eye on the pots, checking them for water every 10-14 days or so. be very, very careful not to overwater, which can rot the semi-dormant rhizomes. If they do not show signs of growth, they can be placed outdoors in mid-late April; if they do show signs of growth above the soil line, wait until the danger of frost has passed, to place them outdoors or at least move them indoors anytime freezing temperatures are forecast.
Joshua has a problem with his birch tree: I live in Rhode Island, zone 6b and I’m dealing with a struggling birch tree. We planted this tree in the spring of 2020 (first picture). The first year it almost completely defoliated due to lots of black spots on the leaves. I research and believe it to be birch blight, so I sprayed it with copper fungicide. It started to get blight again in 2021, so I sprayed a couple of times (although maybe not as often as the packaging may say) throughout the season and once again in 2022 (second picture shows it dropping its leaves much earlier in the season than it should). This tree has not grown much and I’ve cut off the lower branches to prevent water from splashing up onto the leaves. I also have this tree near a septic tank as I originally wanted a willow, but now realize maybe both would not be a good choice. Do you have any suggestions as to doing anything else to treat this tree or if I should replace it altogether?
The plant is definitely stressed, and it looks to me like it was perhaps planted too deeply. While this may seem like a minor issue, the buttress – the swelling where the base of the tree normally meets the soil – is a crucial area for gas exchange within the tree’s vascular system, and if it is covered up, can cause serious issues. It’s always worth also considering whether any planting materials, like the metal basket or rope from a balled and burlapped tree, may be hindering growth. At this point, I would wait until spring and let the plant show you how it’s doing. If its spring emergence is poor, definitely replace. If it seems to be reasonably healthy, try exposing the buttress, and if there is planting material underground still, do try to remove it best you can without causing major trauma to the roots.
While there are some leaf spots and other diseases that birches can get, they are rarely serious enough to kill a plant, especially in such a short time frame as this. As such, whatever is happening is almost certainly planting, soil, or water-related.
Anne e-mailed, asking: Is now a good time to repot houseplants? I have a number of them that could use repotting but I’m not sure of the best timing.
When horticulturists give advice, it’s usually based on what’s ideal. Well, the fact is, we all live and garden in the real world, not the ideal world, so the answer to your question is that the best time to repot houseplants is when you have the time to do so. Houseplants do not go dormant like hardy plants do in winter, but their growth does slow. So while late winter is probably the best time to repot, it’s perfectly fine to do it earlier in winter as long as you water sparingly.
In our final segment, we had a great conversation with West Michigan beekeeper, Don Snoeyink of Thornapple Woodlands. We cover everything from what bees eat through the season, to how to tell if a hive is healthy, to mead-making, to bee dancing. To hear the extended version, click on the YouTube video below, or listen on your favorite podcast platform. If you are looking for an enthusiastic, knowledgeable beekeeper for a presentation at your school, library, or organization, reach out to Don!