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Plant a Bee Garden

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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.

Honeybees and the Making of America

Photo by James Jordan

Photo by James Jordan

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.

Photo by Bob MacInnes

Photo by Bob MacInnes

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:

  • Barberry
  • Currant
  • Elder
  • Huckleberry
  • Redbud
  • Rhodendron
  • Serviceberry
  • Viburnum
  • Wild lilac
  • Wild rose
  • Willow

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.

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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

Artificial Nests

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

Beekeeping Basics


Talullah from SW France on May 22, 2012:

A great hub and full of information. Well done! Voted up!

craftybegonia from Southwestern, United States on December 28, 2010:

Nice hub! I have noticed that there are less bees around. We do have plants for them to feed on most of the year (unfortunately except winter)I wish there was something they could have year round.

daisy on October 18, 2010:

Love your article. I have a huge garden out back and the bees seem to imgrate to one end of it. Now I know why. Thanks.

AuntJenny from Sunny South on June 09, 2010:

Love this article wonderful information on bees. GREAT job!

logic,commonsense on April 18, 2010:

Great information, thank you for sharing this!

Varenya on March 31, 2010:

This is a great hub! All that you said is quite important! Now, it is springtime, the bees are returning to my flowers but, in a great city, they diminish in number, year after year...

JPSO138 from Cebu, Philippines, International on July 09, 2009:

Wow, I really love this article.

C.S.Alexis from NW Indiana on March 14, 2008:

I am so thankful that I read this article. I have a few areas that I plan to plant this spring with flower seeds. Now I will be sure to use flowers to attract more BEES. I see plenty of them in the warm weather but I will try to encourage feeding more. Your article was informative. Good job!

Stephanie Marshall from Bend, Oregon on March 13, 2008:

Truly a super Hub! Thank you for so much interesting info!

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on March 13, 2008:

I especially like the link for Urban Bee Gardens.

Zsuzsy Bee from Ontario/Canada on March 13, 2008:

Very great hub thanks for all the nice information.

regards Zsuzsy

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