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  • Writer's pictureJessica Morgan McAtee

Butterfly Gardens and Bees

Did you know many people are terrified of bees?

So often, as I have been on my evangelical mission to help folks start urban butterfly habitats, they have told me that they don't want to because they are afraid bees will come.

This comment may have some truth in it, but it mostly demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge about butterfly habitats and nature in general.

Happily, this ends up being a potentially great conversation filled with education and enlightenment. It is misconceptions like this that cause us to miss out on life-giving opportunities, simply because our ignorance has misguided us.

A fear-centered life is not fully lived.

Bees and butterflies have some things in common. They are both highly complex insects with the same four life stages (egg, larva, pupa, adult). Both adults have four wings. They drink from flowers with their proboscis, a coiled up straw-like mouth part. Some bees are venomous as adults and some butterflies are venomous as larvae. The latter cannot sting as adults. They are both on a plant based nectar diet as adults, but bees will add pollen to that, which butterflies rarely do.

Both are pollinators but bees pollinate far more than butterflies do. Both pollinate as a side-effect of what they are really doing. In other words, they are not "trying" to pollinate. It is just a consequence of visiting one flower after another as pollen sticks to their bodies and hitches a ride.

Beyond that, they live different lives with separate job descriptions.

Not all bees are social and live together in a hive, but most people think of honey-bees and so that is what this post will focus on.

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are extremely dutiful and are always on a mission. They are eusocial. This means they work together as a multi-generational team and each has specific tasks to carry out. The Queen Bee lays the eggs and all of the worker bees are her daughters. Male bees are called drones and they are virtually useless except for reproduction. A colony is made mostly of females with very few drones since they are essentially dead weight.

Hmm, wondering if there are any lessons in that? Anywho...I digress.

Female worker bees in a hive are all sisters. Mama Queen lays the eggs in cells. The sisters are assigned tasks based on their age. They feed and raise the young, clean the hive, regulate the temperature, get rid of dead bees, build more cells for more baby sisters, guard the colony and forage for food to feed everyone. They perform choreographed dances to communicate with each other.

Stinging a human is not on their agenda. Only females can sting and when they sting a mammal, their stinger rips out and pulls their insides out with it. Then they die. Therefore, they are not out to sting anyone. That would be a suicide mission.

They only sting when they feel threatened.

They feel threatened when someone is too close to their colony for comfort. Also, if you swat at a bee, she may sting in self-defense. Wouldn't you be defensive if someone swung at you? Don't do that. If you calmly walk away (no screaming, cursing, fast movements or freaking out) she will probably ignore you and get back to her duties.

Meanwhile, butterflies look lazy alongside of bees. They are on a mission to mate and if they are female, they have to lay eggs on one specific host plant that will feed their caterpillars. Each species of butterfly can only lay eggs on one kind of plant so she spends her time locating that plant. She can find it with her antennae from up to a mile away.

The host plants that feed her baby caterpillars don't necessarily have flowers or nectar or pollen. They feed the caterpillars whether or not they are in bloom, because the larvae eat leaves. This means the plants may not be of any interest whatsoever to a bee.

Bees are only interested in flowers.

Note the differences. In a butterfly habitat, specific leaves feed caterpillars. A pollinator garden has bees and is one that focuses on flowers (which alone have pollen). Yes, there is some overlap.

It is true that both bees and adult butterflies seek out flowers. So planting appropriate blooms will attract them. However, one could theoretically create a butterfly garden with host plants that aren't particularly attractive to bees because they don't have appropriate flowers. Maybe this is the first time you have read about inappropriate flowers. Who knew there was a thing?

For example, in a south Florida garden, one could have Coinvine, Coontie, Pipevine, Suberosa Passionvine, Strangler Fig and Grasses which could host nine or more species of butterflies and be of little interest to bees because these plants don't flower in ways that bees are interested in. That's what I mean by inappropriate.

Of course, adult butterflies would prefer you include other nectar sources so that they could feed in your garden, but if you didn't provide it, they could go elsewhere to feed and then return to your garden to lay their eggs.

Usually when people say they can't have a butterfly garden because they don't want bees, they are unaware of how butterfly habitats work. They envision a field of flowers as a butterfly garden. But without host plants a field of flowers is not a butterfly habitat, it's a field of flowers!


Now that you know that planting a butterfly habitat does not inherently attract bees lets consider something else. Dodging bees as a way of life is like never walking outside so that you don't get pooped on by a bird. It's not plausible if you plan on spending time outdoors. Learning to manage your bee fears is a helpful strategy. The odds of being stung by a bee or being pooped on by a bird are relatively low if you are mindful. Both can happen but there are smart ways to avoid them.

I have been actively butterfly gardening since 2002. I spend time outdoors almost everyday, year-round. Even when I am not at home, I am outside chasing butterflies in my travels. Do you know how many times I've been stung by a bee? Never.

I also helped a beekeeper while I was enrolled in an apiculture course at the University of Florida. I never got stung.

True, past performance does not necessarily predict future results. Yet, Helen Keller said, “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.”

My husband doesn't share my affinity for bug culture. We were recently on a run and he was stung. I helped him stay cool and removed the stinger from his arm. Did you know that if you calmly and promptly remove the stinger from your body (your fingernails can do this), you minimize the amount of venom that gets into your system?

So, even if you get stung, there are ways to lessen the damage.

One time a wasp stung my leg, and that was painful, but imagine if I never created a butterfly garden because of my fear of bees. What a sad tale. Putting our fears in perspective can help us to overcome them and live life more fully.

People argue that they (or their children) are highly allergic to bees. In this case you will have to use discretion, but still be reasonable. Banning outdoor time may not be your only option. Carry an EpiPen, which you probably do anyway. Practice being calm and mindful when you see a bee. Teach your children to do the same. Don't panic. Don't wear perfumes or bright colors while outdoors, don't imitate flowers. Don't leave food outside at picnics, have sugary drinks or fruits or climb through the flowers. There are prudent ways to avoid bees even when outdoors.

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

— Marie Curie


Jessica Morgan McAtee

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