Keeping crops safe during growing season is a top priority for most homesteaders, and while nature is wonderful, there are bugs and predators out there that can cause some serious damage to our gardens.
On any homestead, bees are crucial to our long-term survival, so it’s important to watch out for their sake, as much as they watch out for our plants.
Naturally, our first instinct is to protect our plants at any cost, to avoid extensive damage and harvest lost later in the season.
However, before you drive to your nearest garden center to purchase an all-in-one bug killer, choose your pesticide carefully by paying attention to the ingredients that are in these often harmful products.
Most commercial pesticides are loaded with chemicals that can kill bees, who play a crucial role in promoting and maintaining the health of our diverse environment.
As most homesteaders are heading fast into the planting and growing season, here is some advice to help you protect all of those bees working hard out in the fields.
Table of Contents:
Why Bees are Important to Us
As the spring season continues to move in and the temperature begins to warm up, insects will begin to awaken and get to work.
Bees are busy creatures, especially during the spring and summer seasons, with the garden season beginning shortly.
Unfortunately, most people hear the word ‘bee’ or hear their buzzing wings and feel a sense of dread, maybe even the knee-jerk reaction to want to squash any bee that comes close to them.
If you happen to be one of those people, stop and think before you act because bees provide a service to our plant communities as critical as it is unique.
There are about 25,000 different varieties of bees across the globe, with 4,000 varieties found here in the United States.
Those 4,000 varieties are then categorized into nine families, one of which is the Apidae family where the honeybees, bumblebees, and stingless bees reside and are the most well-known and recognized in North America.
What makes this variety so efficient as pollinators is the fibrous texture on their bodies (which is why bumblebees are often referred to as, “fuzzy bees”).
As bees flit around collecting pollen and nectar, a great deal of pollen accumulates on the fuzzy fibers and is transported from one plant to the next exponentially magnifying the reproductive chances allowed by being carried by the wind or passing mammal.
As our population grows, our food production rates needing to keep pace, making bees more important than ever.
Pollinators and Providers
Bees are responsible for pollinating billions of plants every year, including our domestic gardens and the wildlife environs.
They are responsible for pollinating three-quarters of the plants that grow our food sources and about 90% of the world’s wild flowering plants. Bees are also critical pollinators on farms and homesteads as well.
Some studies have indicated that farms with honeybees being raised on them have a 50 percent better pollination rates than those that do not; it is no surprise that many beekeepers rent out or maintain hives on farms and orchards across the United States.
Aside from honey and pollen, bees provide royal jelly, beeswax, propolis, and honeybee venom. But more importantly are vital in the maintenance of the wide variety of diverse environments that make up are including the tropical and desert regions.
The maintenance of the regions is part of the grand existence of bees, which is to support and protect the ecological balance and biodiversity in nature, which is why bees’ presence or absence in nature is notable.
Homemade Bee Safe Pest Remedies
Every gardener, farmer, and homesteader know the struggles abating the pests and infectious disease that harm, or even kill our plants and produce and also the struggle to keep pests away without harming the creatures that help our crops.
Commercial pesticides and weed killers spread toxins into the air and soil, contaminating our crops and harming our pollinators.
While there are organic, bee-friendly pesticides on the market, here are some DIY options you might consider giving a try before going out and purchasing alternatives.
When trying any new homemade remedies or recipes, make sure to test a small patch of a plant to avoid severely damaging or killing your plants.
Baking soda is an inexpensive option that doubles as a weed killer. Two ways that you can use baking soda include shaking the powder directly over your plants to ward off garden slugs, or mix with water and olive or vegetable oil:
Baking Soda Pest Spray
- 1/3 tsp baking soda
- 1/3 cup olive or vegetable oil
- 1 cup water
- Mix thoroughly, pour into a spray bottle, and spray onto plants to ward away aphids, spider mites, and white flies.
These are common pest remedies, and with each one, it is important to use biodegradable and organic soap options whenever possible. This insecticide soap spray recipe calls for:
Vegetable Oil Soap Spray
- 1 gallon water
- 2 tbsp olive or vegetable oil
- 5 tbsp castile soap (with no detergents or fragrance)
- Mix the ingredients thoroughly and pour into spray bottle. Spray directly onto insects or the infected plants evenly, coating the foliage.
Neem Oil Soap Spray
Neem Oil Soap Spray is another simple yet effective variation on the bee safe soap persticides. To make this pesticide you will need:
Neem Oil Soap Spray
- 1 gallon water
- 4 tsp organic virgin neem oil
- ¼ tsp eco-friendly soap
- Mix soap and water and shake well, then slowly add in the neem oil, stirring constantly. Use by spraying the plants’ entire foliage (leaves, stems, etc) but try to avoid coating the buds or blooms. (Disclaimer: Only spray in the early morning, when bees are not out, as wet neem oil can harm bees)
Garlic & Mint Pesticide Spray
Some common herbs can also be turned into highly effective bee safe pesticides. This is a great recipe for a pesticide using garlic and mint:
Garlic & Mint Pesticide Spray
- 2 heads garlic, cloves separated, and peeled
- 3 cups fresh mint, all parts
- 2 tsp cayenne pepper, dried
- 12 cups water
- 2 small pumps biodegradable dishwashing liquid
- Add cayenne pepper, garlic, mint, and water to a medium pan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and let sit overnight.
- Strain ingredients, and pour liquid into a spray bottle, then add the dish liquid.
- Spray all leaves or affected plants, including their undersides. Wait a few days to see results/notice a difference. Spray again, if necessary.
Hot Pepper Insecticide Spray
The cops use pepper spray, but homesteaders can too! Insecticides that use hot peppers you can grow right on your homestead can be a great, bee-safe way to protect your crops from pests.
Outside of DIY recipes like the ones mentioned here, there are many other things you likely have lying around your homestead that you can put to good use protecting your crops.
For example, you could use coffee grounds and ground-down eggshells to ward away ants and slugs. Mix them together, or use them separately, just sprinkle the grounds across the soil.
Additionally, banana peels are full of nutrients, which is an added bonus to burying them just under the soil near your plants to ward away pests.
You could also sprinkle ground black pepper, paprika, or chili pepper to ward off maggot flies and rabbits Finally, you could spread grapefruit or orange rings around your garden to repel insects.
Other strong, natural scents (including eucalyptus, rosemary, and peppermint) repel pests and insects, and keep bees safe at the same time.
Plants to Help Bees Thrive and Deter Pests
One way to deter pests and attract beneficial insects and pollinators is through companion planting.
We are heading into greenhouse shopping or seedling planting time, so be prepared ahead of time by mapping out your plots or raised beds, as companion planting takes quite a bit of organizing, planning, and cross-referencing.
Companion planting is a great way to learn about your plants and how plants work together in their environment, as each plant is interdependent on each other.
Being interdependent is not always a beneficial factor of companion planting, so make sure to avoid certain combinations of vegetables or plants. Pairing up plants to fend off predators or attract bees is not the only benefit of this process, as companion planting can also increase soil fertility.
Soil fertility includes the nutrient supply, nutrient availability, and nutrient uptake from the soil. How nutritious your soil is to your crops and flowers can greatly depend on the plots’ combinations and layout.
To avoid nutrient-related issues, try to avoid pairing plants with similar needs, as this will cause competition between plants.
Avoid pairing plants that are susceptible to similar diseases, such as blight, and can inhibit each other’s growth (such as the onion family and the legume family).
Before we move on to the different beneficial combinations, and which to avoid, it is also important to note the importance of rotating crop placement, as planting the same crops in the same locations every year can lead to the attraction of pests and diseases due to nutrient imbalances.
Since one of the primary jobs of bees is to pollinate, they need food for energy to get to every flower and crop.
Dedicating a section of your garden, porch, or field to plants that are great sources of nectar and pollen can greatly help nearby bee populations thrive, the source of nectar and pollen being crucial in their survival and energy levels.
Flowers that are rich in both sources of nutrition include:
- Anise Hyssop – feeds several species of bees, while keeping their blooms for several weeks, which keeps the bees busy with eating.
- Aster – these flowers bloom late in the season, which helps bees fill up on energy before the winter season moves in.
- Holy Basil – Wait to harvest until after the delicate flowers bloom; the tiny flowers that stem from the basil are perfect for bee-feeding
- Black-Eyed Susan – There are many varieties of this flower. The staple yellow color help to attract our pollinators.
- California Lilac – a part of the Ceanothus genus; this flower, along with the other blue varieties, attracts all types of bees
- Red and White Clover – these flowers not only offer bees a source of food, but also offer your lawn a source of nitrogen
- Cotoneaster – for the native bumblebees, these flowers can be planted in more than one variety and will be available to the bees all season.
- English Lavender – these beautiful purple flowers bloom in the middle of summer, providing a source of food when bees are the most active.
- Goldenrod – A part of the Aster family, these golden flowered stems bloom at the end of the season, providing food for the beginning of the colder seasons
- Oregano – Allow to bloom with flowers; while this will hinder the harvest of the herb initially, the flowers will face after some time.
- Echinacea, Purple Coneflower – These flowers have enough room for more than one bee to feed at a time and will bloom throughout most of the spring and summer seasons and into the fall.
- Rosemary – Blooms in the early spring, with blue flowers that attract bees
- Sage (culinary & ornamental) – flowers bloom from the bottom and upwards on this plant, providing multiple visits worth of nectar and pollen
Some of the best plants that deter pests and insects include:
- Aster (variety) – Deters more insects; plant around the garden and near sunflowers to extend the range of determent.
- Basil – Deters flies and mosquitoes; plant near tomatoes
- Borage – deters tomato and cabbage worms, so plant near tomatoes, cabbage, and strawberries
- Calendula – Perfect companion for all vegetables and herbs and deters asparagus beetles, tomato hornworms, and most other insects
- Catnip – An all-vegetable companion plant that deters flea beetles, spittlebugs, ants, Japanese beetles, and weevils
- Celery – good for deterring the white cabbage butterfly, pairs well with leeks, tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, and bush beans
- Dead Nettle – an edible weed that deters potato bugs, most effective when potatoes are planted near natural growing patches of this herb. The similar-in-appearance plant, Henbit, works well in deterring most insects. Both plants have tiny, purple flowers, yet where they sprout is the key difference. Dead nettle flowers grow beneath the purple leaves, while Henbit’s flowers sprout above the leaves.
- Garlic – Avoid planting near any legumes, but is a good companion for tomatoes, eggplant, cabbage; deters Japanese beetles, aphids, spider mites, among other insects, and the infectious disease, blight.
- Marigold – Deters nearly all insects, including bean beetles and nematodes; plant near tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant. Also a good companion flower for roses.
- Any part of the Onion family – while they need to stay away from the legume family, the onion family is a good companion for most vegetables and can also deter most pests, including potato beetles, carrot rust flies, and spider mites.
- Radish – Good companion for beans, carrots, cucumber, parsnips, onions, and squash. Cucumbers and squash may benefit the most, as radishes deter cucumber beetles and squash borers.
- Tansy– Good for deterring flying insects, including Japanese and striped cucumber beetles; plant near squash, potatoes, and avoid planting around collard greens
Pesticide and Herbicide Options
Running a homestead, working full-time, and possibly with a houseful of family, life catches up to us and we might find ourselves caught up with little time and too much we wish we had time to do.
Preparing eco-friendly products at home is one of the tasks many of us might find that we couldn’t find time for.
If you happen to find yourself in a bind, with little time to protect your flowers and crops from the multitude, but want to keep the bees safe, there are bee-safe pesticides out there and through the use of the Internet, nearly anyone can support brands and products that help be gentler on our planet.
Pesticides to Avoid
There is a list of well-known, harmful pesticides that should never be used in a bee-friendly garden or household.
Avoid using or exposing your garden to Orthene, Seven, Diazonin, Bayer, Ambush, Raid, Diatomaceous earth, genuine insecticidal soap and/or oil, copper sulfate, and sabadilla.
This list may or may not seem long, but it includes the top brand names most often sold in the top department and hardware stores.
While Diatomaceous earth is good for keeping pests out of beehives, do be cautious with extensive use.
There are also pesticides that are not safe for bees when they are wet and have yet to properly dry or dissolve, and should only be used in the early morning, before the bees leave their hives for the day.
Such pesticides include: spinosad, pyrethrum, neem oil, boric acid, ryania, adjuvants, horticulture vinegar, copper, and lime sulfur.
Safe Pesticides/Pesticide Ingredients:
Thankfully, there are pesticides that exist that can be used at any time that will keep your local bee population safe, including:
- Kaolin Clay
- Corn Gluten
- Gibberellic Acid
(* Avoid traces of glyphosate in any commercial herbicide, such as Roundup)
(*2,4-D is referred to as a “practically non-toxic” herbicide by the EPA; only use herbicides that contain 2,4-D only and avoid those that combine 2,4-D with Dicamba)
Unfortunately, any gardening product with the word ‘organic’ printed on the label does not necessarily mean that the product is safe for our plants and bees, so we need to do our own research to determine whether a product is safe enough.
Among bee-safe chemicals and topical options, there are other options to keep in mind:
- Mow the lawn prior to spraying the weeds, as this will cut off any flowers or buds that attract bees, which will reduce contact with any herbicides.
- Time herbicide sprays around the bees’ schedule, between 7-8pm and 7-8am when they are in their hives
- Start early by removing weeds, either by pulling or spraying in the early spring, before they have the chance to sprout flowers
- Pour boiling water on weeds (be aware that this option will kill surrounding growth, including grass)
- Row covers – look similar to miniature greenhouses that float over garden rows, allowing sunlight in, but keeps pests out.
- Plant crops, like dill, that invite good insects in to handle the harmful pests
- Guinea fowl are helpful poultry that will eat every bug they encounter, keeping gardens clear of pests.
Keep Bees and Crops Safe
You can keep your crops safe while at the same time making your homestead a haven for hard-working pollinators like bees.
It may take a little more effort, but if the bees are happy in your fields, chances are you’ll have a bountiful harvest of vegetables, herbs, and fruits this season.
So, try a few of the bee-safe pest control remedies suggested here, and find some that work well for you.
When Tom Harkins is not busy doing emergency repairs to his 200 year-old New England home, he tries to send all of his time gardening, home brewing, foraging, and taking care of his ever-growing flock of chickens, turkey and geese.