Plant a Bee Garden
Beneficial bees are necessary to the success of gardens, orchards, and farms, but their numbers are in decline around the world. A bee garden is a beautiful and fragrant way to lend a helping hand.
Why Plant a Bee Garden?
Many people are afraid of bees, often because they mistake them for more aggressive yellow jackets, but the truth is that it's very likely that humans wouldn't even exist if not for bees. Bees are the primary pollinators in most areas of the world, to the extent that many plants are completely dependant on them to reproduce. Without pollination, there would be no plants, and without plants, there would be no animal life on earth.
Sadly, bee species are in decline around the world. In the United States, domestic and feral populations of the non-native honeybee, one of our most welcome and beneficial invaders, have undergone a dramatic and largely mysterious decline known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). In the winter of 2006-2007, beekeepers began reporting losses of 30-90% of their hives, with similar declines evident in feral populations. Among the factors known to be involved are competition from aggressive Africanized bees (the so-called "killer bees"), parasitic varroa and traccheal mites, Israeli acute paralysis virus (IAPV), widespread insecticide use, and habitat destruction. Honeybees pollinate more than 130 crop plants alone in the United States, and are credited with adding more than $15 billion annually to crop values, so their sudden and dramatic decline is a very serious issue likely to cause serious repercussions in crop values and the price of food around the world.
- American Beekeeping Federation
Serving the Industry Since 1943
- Help the Honey Bees
Haagen-Dazs is doing its best to raise awareness of the issue
- The Honeybee Conservancy
An organization working to protect the honeybee
- The Vanishing of the Bees
A documentary dealing with the issue
- American Honey Producers Association
Dedicated to promoting the common interest and general welfare of the American Honey Producer
Honeybees and the Making of America
Can Native Bees Save the Day?
Fortunately, there are over 4,000 native bee species in the United States. Of these, the vast majority are solitary bees, unlike the social honey bees. Bumblebees, of which there are over 40 varieties, are the only truly social native bees.
Solitary bees, also known as pollen bees, are not vulnerable to pressure from the aggressive African "killer bees," nor are they susceptible to IAPV or the parasitic mites wrecking such destruction on honey bee colonies.
Solitary bees do not produce honey and are not easily domesticated, so it is harder for a farmer, orchardist, or gardener seeking to improve pollination to simply establish a population of bees nearby. However, some species of solitary bees can be purchased and because they do not travel as far or visit as many different species of plants at a time, a population of solitary bees, once established, will stick close by and provide more effective pollination than honey bees. In fact, solitary bees are considered to be over 100 times more efficient as pollinators than honey bees.
Solitary bees are more active early in spring, before honey bee colonies reach large size, and are active on damp, cool days when honeybees stay in their nests. They also fly more quickly, allowing them to pollinate more plants faster, and both male and female bees are active pollinators, unlike honey bees, whose males are useful only to mate with the queen.
Finally, solitary bees are gentler and less aggressive than social bees because they have no hive to defend. Most solitary bees will chose flight rather than fight if disturbed.
How to Attract and Keep Native Bees
Bees are looking for two main things in a good home: food and nesting habitat.
The surest way to encourage native bees to to plant a profusion of flowers and flowering trees and shrubs with staggered blooming periods, so that there are some flowers blooming from early spring until late autumn. Remember that unlike honeybees, most solitary bees do not travel long distances, so be sure to concentrate plantings near bee nesting habitat.
University of California studies have found that native bees prefer gardens with a large variety of flowers, preferably at least 10 different attractive species, planted in large groupings of similar flowers. Unlike honey bees, many native bee species are partial to native plants, which often provide more nutritious pollen than showy, hybridized exotics. All bee species tend to prefer flowers that are blue, purple and yellow, and that bloom during the day. Red flowers are often intended to attract hummingbirds and certain moths and butterflies, and may be too deep for bees. Many white flowers and flowers that are fragrant only at night are also often ignored by bees - these flowers are intended to attract night-flying moths. One of the most common exceptions is Dutch White Clover, a non-native clover that is popular with honeybees and native bees alike.
Native North American flowers bees love include:
- Asters (Aster)
- Beard Tongue (Penstemon)
- Bee balm (Monarda)
- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)
- Columbine (Aquilegia)
- Coneflower (Echinacea)
- Goldenrod (Solidago)
- Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium)
- Lobelia (Lobelia)
- Lupine (Lupine)
- Milkweed (Asclepias)
- Sage (Salvia)
- Tickseed (Coreopsis)
- Yarrow (Achillea)
Bee-friendly native shrubs and trees include:
- Wild lilac
- Wild rose
Other common native or naturalized garden plants (and/or weeds) that bees love include: daisy, lavender, mint, dahlia, zinnia, cosmos, snapdragon, larkspur, delphinium, sunflowers, catmint, rosemary, "Autumn Joy" sedum, penstemon, basil, oregano, tomato, eggplant, nightshade, lilac, dogwood, wisteria, sumac, raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, dandelion, clover, Queen Anne's Lace, mustard, buttercup, and all flowering fruit and nut trees. The attractive silver linden, a native of Eurasia that does well in most of the continental USA (excluding the Deep South and the Pacific Coast), is a favorite tree of honeybees.
Avoid any plant varieties described as "double," which have extra petals rather than pollen producing anthers and generally produce little nectar or pollen for bees.
Bees also need a source of water, such as a dripping faucet, birdbath, or large leafed plant that collects rainwater, such as the native Cupplant (Silphium) or garden vegetables such as lettuce, broccoli, etc.
Mason Bees Coming to Life
The nesting habits of solitary bees can be roughly divided into two main types: ground dwelling and wood dwelling.
Ground dwelling bees love dry, sunny, south facing banks of soil, free of mulch or vegetation. Some bees, notably the beneficial orchard mason bee, also build their nests with mud, so providing some open soil moistened by a drip irrigation hose, leaky plastic milk jug, or other source will attract these bees.
Wood dwelling bees prefer dead trees, so if you (and your neighbors) can stand to leave a tall stump or other dead wood available, this is ideal. If not, you can also make or purchase artificial nests for wood dwelling bees. Nests should be placed so the holes are horizontal and about 3-6 feet off the ground, in a spot where the bees can receive sunlight while being sheltered from wind, rain, and pests and predators, such as mice and woodpeckers.
A Final Note
You can plant the best bee garden in the world, but it still won't do any good if you use pesticides. ALL bees, social and solitary, native and non-native, are killed by insecticides sprayed to control harmful insects such as mosquitoes and farmer's pests. Use organic methods of pest control, such as companion planting, crop rotation, farmscaping, and beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, praying mantises, and lacewings, exclusively in your bee garden, and anywhere nearby.
If you absolutely must use insecticides, spray after dark, when the bees are safely in their nests, and use less persistent chemicals that are safer for bees and other pollinators.
Learn More About Bee Gardening
- National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service: Native Bees
Extensive information about native bee species and conservation, as well as a list of suppliers of native bees and bee equipment
- Urban Bee Gardens
A practical guide to introducing the world's most prolific pollinators into your garden
- Plant a Bee-Friendly Garden
Information from the Honeybee Conservancy
- So What's the Buzz on Bee Gardening?
A helpful introduction to bee gardening
- A Bee Garden for Attracting Osmia
Bee garden information tailored to attracting the orchard Mason Bee and its relatives
- Alternative Pollinators
A large collection of links related to bees and bee gardening
- BeeSpotter: Designing a Bee Garden
Useful guide with information on what types of flowers attract specific types of bees
- Xerces.org: Pollinator Conservation
Excellent collection of fact sheets and other information on conservation of both honey and native bees
- Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility
The Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility offers information about the biology and conservation of both honey and native bees.