According to Greenpeace, the number of pollinating bee colonies per hectare in the US has decreased 90% since 1962. Some of these losses are no doubt due to the increased use of herbicides in both agriculture and backyards.
While scientific research shows commercial herbicides such as 2,4-D and Atrazine are relatively harmless to bees, organic weed killers such as lemon juice, corn gluten meal, mulching, mowing, and weeding are preferable in your backyard if you want to protect bees.
Let’s consider how we can help the bees that come to our garden with bee-friendly herbicides and organic weed-killer alternatives, so we can protect bee colonies in the future.
Bee Friendly Herbicides
Many commercial weed killers, such as Dicamba and Roundup (Glyphosate) are toxic to bees. Even some organic alternatives such as household vinegar will kill them.
So which commercial herbicides, if any, can be used in your garden without killing bees? Well, there are a couple, 2,4-D and Atrazine.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the herbicide 2,4-D – which has been used to control broad-leafed weeds since the 1940s is “practically nontoxic to honeybees”.
In this context, it can also be used safely on lawns, in forestry areas, and for fruit and vegetable crops.
Scientific research shows that the commonly used herbicide Atrazine (used to kill broad-leafed weeds in maize, soybean, and sugarcane crops) has been “observed to not be acutely toxic to bees” at low levels.
However, this latter part is crucial as if we were to use Atrazine in our backyard we could easily overdo it and start killing bees.
That’s why the following organic weed killers are perhaps always the best option to use in our gardens…
Organic Weed Killers Safe For Bees
You too can be an organic weed killer! Weed pulling is safe for pets, kids and bees. In fact, pets and kids can join in the weeding action too.
First, a word about weeds. Weeds, to us, are unwanted plants. For bees, weeds can be lifesavers. For example, dandelions are one of the first springtime flowers. In springtime, bees don’t have a lot of flower choices. Timing is everything – pull dandelions later in the growing season, when bees have lots of pollen choices.
Everyone has an opinion about which weeding tools are most effective, and hardware stores carry lots of them. You can also weed the old-fashioned way: with your fingers. A nice pair of garden gloves help a lot, and garden carts to sit on can be real back savers.
Pulling weeds is easiest and most effectively done after a good rain or some soaking with the hose. Weeding eliminates postemergent weeds – postemergent weeds are the ones with green showing above the ground. Weeding can also be effective for some preemergent (still underground) weeds – the weeds that grow by sending out shoots.
Pulled weeds can be composted, unless they are noxious. Every state has an agriculture extension office with a list of noxious weeds. The extension office can tell you whether these weeds should be burned or bagged.
Weed pulling gets a bad rap. Weeding can be calming. Soothing. You can listen to kids playing or get your earbuds on and listen to music. Sing. Check out a podcast. Pull weeds while learning a new language.
Weed pulling is a great way to kill weeds. Spraying chemicals, even organic ones, can kill neighboring plants and good bugs.
Laying down mulch in gardens makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons: it helps conserve water, fights pests, prevents erosion, protects plants in winter and – it helps with weed control.
Mulch can be plastic, landscaping fabric, rocks, grass clippings, leaves, hay, bark, shells, cardboard, wood chips, newspaper, and the list goes on. It can be organic (like bark) or inorganic (like plastic).
Weeds need dirt and sunlight to grow. In gardens with a good, thick mulch layer, preemergent weeds won’t grow due to lack of sunlight. Weed seeds that land in the mulch have a hard time germinating, due to lack of dirt.
Worms love mulch and organic gardeners should, too. Organic mulches add nutrients to the soil when they break down. Mulches improve the beauty of your flower garden and make attractive rings around trees. The biggest downside to mulch is that it needs to be replaced when it breaks down or gets blown away.
Weed patches like to start up in areas where the dirt has been disturbed, like building sites or newly tilled gardens. Weeds have an ecological, competitive advantage – they can get their roots down faster than most other plants. In the plant world, whichever plant gets the most sunshine, water and nutrients – wins.
Less aggressive plants, like grass, tend to lose the competition with weeds. Pulling the weeds and then overseeding with the less aggressive plants can even up the score. The healthier and thicker the grass in your lawn is, the fewer weeds will be able to grow.
Cutting or Mowing
Weeds thrive when left undisturbed – unstressed. To stress out weeds (annuals in particular), often a plan of relentlessly cutting them down will stress the weeds to the point where they give up and die out.
Cutting weeds down over and over will kill them, but it takes time – sometimes years.
Corn Gluten Meal
Corn gluten is a byproduct of corn milling and not to be confused with corn meal. It’s safe for bees, pets and kids. It comes as pellets, granules or powder.
Corn gluten prevents weeds by inhibiting weed seeds from taking root. This method works on preemergent weeds – weeds that already exist won’t be affected. Application can be tricky because the corn gluten needs to be applied and watered at once. Then, it needs to stay dry for seven days. That’s the tricky part – weather timing, because it’s critical that the gluten stays dry for that long.
Corn gluten can achieve 80% success at controlling crabgrass but may need repeated applications. One downside of this method is that germination suppression isn’t limited to the seeds of weeds – flower seeds and grass seeds will also be suppressed. Another downside is that corn gluten meal is not cheap. Directions say to apply it in a thick layer, and possibly more than once – so make sure this method fits into your budget.
Be sure that the corn gluten you buy is labeled as an herbicide, as some feed products can also be labeled corn gluten.
Lemon juice is often added to vinegar and water recipes but can also be used by itself. Lemon juice is safe for kids, pets and bees, although you might not want your toddler to get some in their eyes.
Application is with a spray bottle on a dry, sunny day. Spraying lemon juice on weeds will kill them, but also any plants nearby, so be sure to use this method in driveways or pathways. Since lemon juice is a postemergent weed killer, repeated applications will be necessary. Another downside is that lemon juice will kill any good bugs you happen to spray.
Essential Oils: Clove, Peppermint, Eucalyptus, Lavender and Rosemary
Essential oils are often added to a vinegar and water-based recipe. Clove oil (eugenol) is often listed as the best essential oil weed killer. Essential oils are kid, pet and bee friendly.
Essential oil mixtures are sprayed on postemergent weeds, so repeated applications will be necessary. Since it kills all leafy plants, be careful to contain the spray to the weeds. Essential oils are also natural insect repellents.
Pouring a pan of left-over boiling water over weeds in a driveway or a pathway is an effective way to kill them. Be careful with kids and pets!
This method will kill weeds that have already emerged but not the ones still below ground. In fact, it might help them.
Summary: Bee Safe Weed Killer
As you can see, there are many ways to control weeds in your garden without using herbicides that can harm bees.
Bees around the world and across the US are having a hard time of it at the moment, yet they are an essential part of our ecosystem that we disrupt at our peril.
So when you’re planning your outside space and need to weed your patio, lawn or flower beds – try some of these bee-friendly herbicides or organic alternatives so our small buzzing friends can live happily in your yard and beyond 🙂
Homeowner and property investor Larry Jones founded Take a Yard in 2020 to bring you the very best outdoor living content, based on his years of experience managing outside spaces. Read more >