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Extension advice: Be good to bees and they’ll be good to us

Bees are good! Fruit trees, farm crops and almost all native plants depend on bees, our best pollinators, to reproduce. But that doesn’t mean bees are welcome in everyone’s garden. Some people (about 0.4 percent of the population) have serious allergic reactions to bee stings; and they’re always concerned when they see any kind of bee.

Dozens of true bee species live in Georgia gardens. Most are small and rarely sting. Or if they do, heir stings are usually mild. Most insect stings, though, aren’t from bumblebees or even honeybees.

The #1 culprit is the yellow jacket.

These ground-dwelling wasps are aggressive scavengers.

They’re attracted to anything sweet or rotting. You can be in a 100-acre lawn with no flowers and still be stung by yellow jackets.

Even then, these insects are only reacting to perceived threats to their nests when they sting. They’re really not out to get you.

Honeybees and bumblebees definitely have better things to do than search you out. Following a few common sense rules will help keep your chances of being stung in the garden tiny. Strong perfumes, for example, may attract defensive insects if you’re near their nests.

Sometimes what you eat for breakfast can attract a bee. The odor of a banana, for instance, mimics an alarm chemical honeybees use to alert nest-mates to danger.

In the garden, keep three things in mind to avoid being stung:

1. Move slowly, especially near flowers where bees are feeding.

2. Watch your hands. If you brush a bee off a flower, it may try to cling to you. If you do nothing, it will almost always fly away.

This may require a minute or so of bravery. If the bee stays on your shirt or skin, a slow brushing- off will usually do the trick. Never try to hit, swat or pick off the bee.

3. Never go into a garden or lawn area with bare feet. Stepping on a honeybee in the clover is a good way to get stung.

Watch for insect nests, too. Bumblebees and yellow jackets rear their young in shallow underground nests. Bumblebees prefer grassy areas at the edge of woods or near large rocks.

Yellow jackets seem to like soft soil in the sun but protected by grass or other small plants. Look for insects flying back and forth in the same direction near the ground.

That’s almost always a sign that a colony is nearby.

You can grow plants that don’t attract stinging insects, too. Normally, whatever attracts hummingbirds and butterflies will attract a lot of bees, as well. But don’t mow down the butterfly garden yet.

Many of the most attractive plants are natives. Joe Pye weed, for instance, attracts wasps and yellow jackets like a magnet.

Monarda, Echinacea and even azaleas attract bees. Many ornamental imports lure bees, too. Good examples are abelia bushes, chaste trees (Vitex), butterfly bushes (Buddleia), hybrid azaleas, and perennials and annuals like Mexican sunflowers, salvias, snapdragons, sedums and phlox.

Plants that don’t attract bees are less common. They include cultivars of dianthus, geraniums, chrysanthemums, marigolds, strawflowers, some zinnias and roses. In the meantime, enjoy the bees.

If you have questions about insects or flowers, contact me at the Bryan County Extension Service office at 912-653-2231 or

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