Glynis Board Published

Want to Help West Virginia Honeybees? Here Are Five Gardening Tips


While Honeybee Colony Collapse  Disorder (CCD) is relatively uncommon in West Virginia, bees and pollinators are still threatened in the region and all across the country. About a third of all of our foods (and beverages) come from crops pollinated by these insects. There’s growing concern that pesticides and certain farming practices are at the heart of the crisis, so more and more gardeners are stepping up to support pollinators in their own yards and fields.

Emilie and Bill Johnson of Morgantown are Master Gardeners, meaning they’ve been trained and either volunteer or teach horticulture through a national Master Gardener program. They have become passionate, quite accidentally, about supporting pollinators. Here are five tips to help you do the same:

1. Pollinators come in many shapes and sizes.

What started as a desire to encourage more butterfly visits became an interest in encouraging visits from all sorts of pollinators including honey bees and native bees, dragonflies, mayflies, and even humming birds and bats.

“We love the beautiful garden, too,” Bill said, “so it’s not just about gardening for insects. It’s about gardening for people as well!”

Bill also points out that a butterfly is only an adult butterfly for a small portion of its total lifespan, and many early incarnations of butterflies require very specific plants.

The Johnsons grow milkweed for Monarch Butterfly larvae, for example. Monarchs are the big black, orange, and white migratory butterflies in grave danger of disappearing because of loss of habitat and other factors.


Credit Glynis Board / WVPublic
Images from the garden.

2. Keep it wild—or as wild as you can handle.

In fact, the Johnsons grow a variety of milkweeds as well as other native and wild plants because, apparently, bugs love the native stuff.

“Find a part of your garden that you can let go wild, or as wild as you can stand it and put native plants in or plants that people might think of as weeds,” Bill said. He cautions others about introducing plants that might be (or become) invasive.

3. Don’t keep a lawn, keep a “clipped meadow.”

While the Johnsons won’t claim coining the phrase, “clipped meadow,” it gets to the point. From about 20 feet away, you might be able to discern some clover or a dandy lion in the yard, maybe. Johnson shrugs when he says he’s given up a monoculture-grass lawn.

“Clover is a legume and legumes are the only plant family that I know of that actually fixes nitrogen out of the air and puts the nitrogen into the soil. So there’s a synergy between the clover and the grass. Why put chemical nitrogen on your lawn when you can have clover do the job,” Bill said.

The Johnsons admit that they aren’t organic gardeners. But they, like many, are worried about pesticide use. According to a recent study by Harvard’s School of Public Health, pesticides are at the heart of colony collapse disorder (CCD). And the Environmental Protection Agency indicates that there is data to implicate one of the most commonly used pesticides, called neonicotinoids. The agency reports that residues from the pesticide, “can accumulate in pollen and nectar of treated plants and may represent a potential exposure to pollinators.”

4. Pollinate your own food.

Thirty percent of our food effusively depends on honeybees alone. The value of their pollination services is often measured by farmers and economists in billions of dollars. And the Johnson’s have come to learn that they, too, can take advantage of this free service to grow their own apples, blueberries, raspberries, and lots of herbs, too.  The Johnsons report that pollinators love herbs like thyme, lavender and basil.

5. Anyone can do it.

Emilie said, as more and more information is being circulated on the subject of pollinators and gardening, Farmers Markets are a good place to get educated. And you don’t need a green thumb to grow some pollinator-friendly foods and plants.

“Anybody can help,” she said. “Anybody can plant a few things. Everyone can get in on this. It’s a fun thing, especially for kids! Kids love bugs!”

From a community garden, to a box of herbs on your deck or in a window box, Emilie said, the pollinators will find you.


Snapshot from Bill and Emilie Johnson’s garden.