With more than 4,000 bee species native to North America, plus imported species such as the honey bee, these colorful insects are one of the easiest types of wildlife to attract to your garden. You might have more bees in your garden than you think—there are more black, blue, and metallic green species than the easily recognizable black-and-yellow ones. Most rarely sting, and all are extremely important pollinators of wild and agricultural plants. In fact, one third of the food we eat is the result of animal pollinators, the most important of which is the bee.
Bees are threatened by overuse of pesticides and habitat destruction, but you can help by planting a bee garden. Since bees feed on nectar and pollen from flowering plants, anyone with a small garden patch is already providing a bee habitat. Here’s how to make your garden even more attractive to bees:
Include a diversity of blooms from early spring through late fall to provide for different species that are active at different times of the year. The same plants will also give them shelter from predators and heavy rains. The best plants are the species native to your area. They are adapted to your local soils, climate, and precipitation, and they are the species with which native bees evolved. Some plants are even wholly dependent on certain bees to pollinate them.
Provide bees with nesting areas. Most species are solitary and do not form hives. Many lay their eggs in tunnels in sandy, dry soil, so leave a bare patch in your garden to provide nesting areas. Others, notably carpenter bees, nest in tunnels in decaying wood. Keep a dead tree snag or log in your yard for these bees.
Lure orchard mason bees to your garden by putting out bundles of dried, hollowed-out stems of bamboo or native shrubs such as elderberry. A female bee will deposit a small amount of pollen and nectar in the stem, lay an egg, and seal off the chamber with mud. She’ll repeat this process until the stem is filled. The larvae hatch and feed on the pollen-nectar deposit, pupate, and emerge as adults the following spring. Or drill 3- to 5-inch-deep holes in blocks of untreated wood with a 5/16-inch drill bit and place the block in a sheltered spot in the garden.
Bumble bees form hives and often use abandoned mouse burrows. You can build hive boxes filled with dried grasses to simulate what a bumble bee queen would find inside a mouse burrow. Plans for bee nests are available on the Internet.
Give bees a water source. Add rocks to a birdbath to provide a safe landing place for bees to get a drink. A dripper will not only keep the water clean, but will also create a muddy patch beneath the bath that certain bees will use for nesting material.
Practice organic gardening. Organic gardening will make your bee garden complete. Insecticides kill beneficial insects, including bees, along with the pests. Bee gardens attract birds and butterflies as well, providing these crucially important pollinators and other wildlife with the habitat they need to survive.
The truth about bee stings
Many people are afraid of getting stung by bees, but the reality is that bees rarely sting. Here are the facts:
- Only female bees have the ability to sting.
- Stinging is often a reaction to threats to the hive. As a result, aggression is higher in hive-forming bees. Fortunately, the vast majority of bees are not hive-formers and only sting if severely harassed.
- Honey bee stingers are barbed. When a bee stings someone, she tears a piece of abdomen, causing her death. Some wasp species can sting repeatedly.
- If you are allergic to bee stings but love to garden, see your doctor and keep appropriate medications handy. Make sure your family and neighbors know of your allergy and what to do in case of a sting.
David Mizejewski is the author of Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife (Creative Homeowner, 2004), the host of Animal Planet’s “Backyard Habitat” and a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation.