5 Things You Can Do to Help the Bees

If you enjoyed some blueberries in your cereal this morning or a thick slice of tomato on your BLT sandwich, you have a bee to thank. Native bees, of which there are approximately 4,000 species in North America, are the primary pollinator of many of our agricultural crops. They are generally far more efficient at pollinating food crops than honeybees which are native to Europe, although honeybees are used for pollinating crops like almonds and lemons. It is estimated that native bees are responsible for pollinating 80% of all flowering plants.

Sadly, bee populations are dwindling around the world. A variety of factors are thought to be impacting bee health and reducing their numbers including habitat loss, a lack of biodiversity of flowers available for feeding, air and water pollution, increased pesticide and herbicide use, and pathogens such as varroa mites.

It is more important than ever before to do whatever we can to support bee health and populations. Every one of us can play a part, no mater how big or small, in doing so. Here are five simple things you can do to make a difference.

bees on Ascelpias tuberosa_stock photo
Bees feeding on native milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa.
1. Plant long-blooming flowers and/or a succession of blooms in larger groupings.

Some people are foodies who enjoy petite, gourmet meals artfully arranged on their plate. Bees are not like foodies. They are more like your grandpa Sam who prefers the all-you-can-eat buffet and wants to be back home by sundown. Look at the plants that bees prefer in your garden. Are they arranged like a gourmet meal or a full buffet?

It takes some time to grow a garden where something is always in bloom. We wrote a whole article on that topic here and have plant lists for you in this article. It’s a goal worth pursuing if supporting pollinators is important to you. Bees tend to go where they have plentiful, consistent and reliable food sources, so if your garden includes mainly plants that bloom one time of year, you are less likely to see bees as often.

You could plant bee-friendly flowers that bloom all season like these annuals including spider flower, evolvulus, lantana, sweet alyssum and moss roses. Or, you could coordinate plantings of bee-friendly perennials and shrubs that bloom in succession through the seasons. If you have enough space in your garden, you could do a litle of both. Be sure to incorporate some native species and cultivars into your garden, as many are highly attractive to pollinating bees. Just remember that planting a single pot of milkweed, for example, won’t have nearly the same benefit to bees as planting a grouping of them.

Bee houses at Des Moines Botanical Garden_Susan Martin
This exhibit at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden in Iowa demonstrates how to make and display simple bee houses for cavity nesting bees. Each house is a grouping of repurposed tin cans filled with a variety of twigs and dried flower stems. The garden below the bee houses is filled with flowering plants which provide a pollen source.
2. Create or leave wild places in your yard for bees to nest.

Highly manicured, well-mulched gardens may look prety, but they don’t make the best habitat for bees. It’s estimated that 70% of all bees nest underground including many native solitary bee species.

When you add a thick layer of shredded hardwood mulch on your garden beds every spring, it makes it more difficult for bees to emerge from their winter nests. It’s better to wait until the insects become active in spring to lay your mulch. When you do so, use a lighter weight mulch such as shredded leaves, pine straw or pine bark mulch which are easier for insects to navigate through. Avoid using cedar mulch in pollinator gardens since its scent tends to repel pollinators.

About 30% of our native bee species are solitary bees which nest in the hollow stems of perennials or in piles of brush. Mason bees, leaf cuter bees and other important pollinating bees will use bee houses like the ones pictured above. The best place to site a bee house is in a southeast-facing location that is not easily accessible to skunks, raccoons, opossums and bears which all love to make a meal of bees. The morning sun will warm the bees to help them become active for the day.

bee swarm with beekeeper_stock photo
3. Call a beekeeper if a swarm occurs someplace unsustainable.

You may have seen pictures of a bee swarm on your local TV news or on social media. It looks like a hive of bees all bunched together in a tree or on the sunny side of a building, but without the characteristic honeycomb or papery nest. You’re most likely to find a bee swarm from April through June.

Swarms occur when a honeybee colony runs out of room in their hive and the bees need to find a new home. The queen bee emits pheromones to her worker bees to let them know it’s time to go. The colony produces a new queen bee who stays behind in the old hive, and the original queen bees leaves with half of the worker bees to establish a new colony.

Swarming bees tend to be very docile because they don’t have a hive to defend. However, it’s best not to atempt to move them yourself. Instead, call a local beekeeper who has the proper equipment to harvest the swarm and relocate it to a safe new location. Please do not reach for bee-killing insecticides if this happens! We need all the pollinating bees we can get.

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A Carolina wren snaps up an insect to feed her young.
4. Reduce or eliminate your use of pesticides and herbicides.

Research into pesticides and herbicides is ongoing, but it’s clear that using fewer or none of them in your garden can benefit bees. Instead of reaching for an insecticide when you see a few holes in your plants’ leaves, first ask yourself if those holes are really harming the plant or if the damage is purely aesthetic. If insects aren’t hurting your plants to the point where they will start to decline, perhaps it’s alright to leave them be.

However, do your research on the pest when you see it. Identify it by name and read up on the potential damage it can cause before taking the next step. Remember that any pesticides, whether they are made of natural or manmade materials, could potentially harm bees. If you must use them, avoid spraying open flowers and apply them in the evening after the bees have returned to their hives for the night.

A great natural alternative to using pesticides is to invite more birds to nest and take up residence in your garden. Providing large, dense shrubbery and small to medium sized trees gives birds a place to nest and hide from predators while scouting for their next meal. The insects they gather to feed their young won’t harm them if the bugs haven’t ingested pesticides.

Herbicides are designed to eliminate plants, some of which are important food sources for pollinators such as clover and dandelions. You could mow high to allow the clover in your lawn to bloom for at least a few days between cuttings each week. Clover also gives rabbits something they prefer to eat instead of your coral bells and hostas. Dandelions could be allowed to bloom but mown down before they disburse their seeds to prevent their spread.

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A bee watering station.
5. Provide a clean water source.

Like every living creature, bees need clean water to survive. They aren’t good swimmers though, so you won’t find them doing the backstroke in your bird bath. Instead, provide a shallow trough of water such as a plant saucer, and place objects in it that the bees can perch on while they drink. When you clean the water in your bird bath, get in the habit of cleaning your bee bath, too. In nature, bees will drink the water collected in cupped leaves, collected in shallow vessels, and while standing on branches or stones at the edges of still ponds.

Everyone can do a little something to help the bees! What will you do this season?

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