Ask the Expert: Bee Gardening

By Denise Knapp, Conservation Program Manager

Originally published as "Ask the Expert"
This article is reprinted from Ironwood Vol 21, No 1; Spring 2013

Q: I've heard bees are important pollinators, and that many of them are declining in numbers. How do I attract them to my garden?

A: Provide bees with diversity using appropriate native plants which flower throughout the year

According to UC Berkeley’s Gordon Frankie, native plants are four times more likely to attract native bees than non-native plants. Support the greatest variety and abundance of bees by planting species with overlapping blooming times to provide resources throughout the year. Choose at least three different pollinator plants each for spring, summer, and fall, and group a single species so that it forms a clump at least three feet in diameter. Bees like showy flowers with a strong scent, particularly those in blues and yellows. Bee-pollinated flowers also typically have landing platforms for their bumbly visitors – picture the complex shape of a lupine or the flat open head of a sunflower. Lastly, nectar guides (markings on the inside of the flower which indicate where the nectar and pollen are) are helpful. Penstemons and monkeyflowers are good examples.

Protect bees from pesticides

Overuse of pesticides may be an even bigger problem in urban areas than agricultural lands, as folks may not follow the label directions closely, or might be inclined to think "more is better." Indeed, studies have found higher pesticide concentrations in urban streams than in agricultural areas. Our native bees are even more sensitive to pesticides than European honey bees, as they tend to be smaller. Landscaping with a diversity of native plants is a great way to encourage not only pollinators, but beneficial predators and parasites who will provide natural pest control.

Provide bees with habitat: open, undisturbed ground or nest sites

Insects are just like humans as they need both food and shelter. Most native North American bees are solitary, and provision their own nests. Many nest in the ground, where they dig their own tunnels. The rest either use existing tunnels in dead trees, or chew out the central pith of stems and twigs. You can help by leaving bare, well-drained soil and dead material, or by constructing an alternative – a wooden bumble bee box, nest block, or stem bundle.

To learn more, read Attracting Native Pollinators and The California Wildlife Habitat Garden, available at the Garden Shop.