Bees are an essential part of our ecosystem—they perform about 80% of pollination worldwide, supporting crops like fruits, nuts, and vegetables. However, bee populations are on the decline due to pesticides, habitat loss, and disease.
Want to help save bees? Try planting a bee garden! Bee gardens provide food and habitat for the pollinators, of course—but they can also benefit you by boosting your garden’s yield and even providing creative inspiration!
To create an inviting pollinator environment, there are a few things you need to know, from the flowers and plants that bees like to how to give bees water. Get a complete rundown in this comprehensive guide.
Why Create a Bee Garden?
Whether you have a green thumb, are passionate about supporting bee habitats, or love to find creative inspiration in nature, there are plenty of reasons to plant a bee friendly garden. Here are just a few.
Do Your Part to Save Bees
Many bee species are currently endangered or in decline due to a variety of factors, including climate change, loss of habitat, and increased pesticide use. Since 1947, the total U.S.-managed honey bee population has declined by 54%. The decreasing population of bees carries steep consequences—without bees’ pollination, many types of food crops would no longer be able to survive. This could have a devastating effect on the environment and the world’s food supply.
Bee gardens are an effective way to care for bees, offering food, shelter, nesting sites, and protection from pesticides and insecticides. While creating a garden may seem like a minor contribution—especially if you have a small outdoor space—every garden can help make strides toward restoring bee populations.
Pollinate Your Plants and Boost Your Garden Bounty
Bees play an essential role in pollinating plants and flowers. When you see them in your garden buzzing from flower to flower, they are actually transferring pollen, which allows for the fertilization of plants. Some fruit and vegetable plants, like cucumbers and squash, require pollination to grow and produce a crop. But even if your plants don’t specifically require it, pollination can help your plants grow bigger, healthier, and more bountiful.
Find Creative Inspiration
Planting a bee garden can also provide endless creative inspiration. Not only will you produce beautiful blooms, which can serve as the subject for paintings of watercolor flowers, but you’ll also attract bees, which can inspire watercolor bee portraits. Or if photography is more your style, bees and blooms are perfect subjects for macro photography. However you express your artistry, a bee garden can fuel your creative pursuits.
Research the Types of Bees Native to Your Area
You might know bees by their signature black-and-yellow coloring, but did you know that there are more than 20,000 known bee species in the world, with 4,000 native to the U.S.? And you may be surprised to learn that most of those species don’t live in hives or colonies. Aside from bumblebees, most bees native to the U.S. are solitary, nesting underground or in holes in logs or plant stems.
The types of bees that are native to your area can influence the composition of your garden, so it’s important to take the time to research local species before you start planting.
What Bees Are Native to Your Area?
How can you determine what bees are native to your area? While there’s no one comprehensive resource that maps out the locations of all 20,000 bee species, you can generally hone in on local bee types with an internet search.
For example, rusty-patched bumblebees are native to the eastern part of the U.S. but can be found in almost all states. The American bumblebee is also native to the eastern part of the country, but it is also common in the central U.S. and Great Plains region.
Use Plants and Materials Specific to Native Bees
The bee species that are native to your area will influence the types of flowers you plant. Some bees have long tongues, which are suited for tubular flowers, like honeysuckle. Those with short tongues prefer flowers like daisies and sunflowers. Different bee species may also be active at different times of the year, further impacting which types of plants and flowers they prefer.
Also consider the nesting habits of bees native to your area. If they nest in the ground, for instance, make sure that you don’t have mulch or weed cloth blocking the soil.
Choose the Best Flowers for Bees
There are a wide array of flowers that attract bees. When browsing seeds and plants, however, it’s best to choose flowers that are native to your geographic location. Native plants and flowers are already adapted to your local climate, seasons, and soil, so they will require less water and maintenance. Plus, because they are so well-suited to your location, they will be more likely to produce ample pollen and nectar to sustain your native bee population.
To learn more about which flowers are native to your location, search the National Wildlife Foundation’s interactive database, or ask the experts at a local nursery.
Planting Flowers for the First Time?
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Generally, bees are drawn to purple, blue, white, and yellow flowers. Bees can’t see red, though, so avoid scarlet blooms. Also make sure to choose a variety of flowers that bloom throughout the year to keep bees supplied with a consistent source of food. If all of your flowers bloom in early spring, for example, the bees’ food will be depleted by the time late summer rolls around.
With these general guidelines in mind, consider the following common types of flowers that bees like.
Bees love calendula, which can be bright orange or yellow. If you live in a mild climate, these can bloom in the winter, but even if you live in a colder climate, they will likely come up in early spring. This is important because these can serve as an early source of food for bees, compared to flowers that bloom later in the spring or summer.
This flower gained its name because it was once used to treat bee stings, but it’s also extremely attractive to bees. There are many different varieties of bee balm, but they generally bloom in the spring for up to eight weeks.
Lavender has a long blooming season—through the entire summer—and is rich in nectar, which makes it a staple food source for bees.
Wisteria has a shorter growing season than other flowers, but it provides ample nectar, so it’s a great addition to a bee garden.
Sunflowers are tall and large, providing plenty of nectar for bees. They tend to bloom in late summer months, which helps extend bees’ food source. And, they’re hardy and easy to establish, which makes them a good choice to plant nearly anywhere. (Pro tip: You can also dry sunflower stems and hang them in your garden to attract cavity-nesting bees!)
This type of wildflower produces a lot of blooms, making it an ample food source for bees. Plus, they’re heat tolerant, so they’re perfect for bee gardens in warmer climates.
Borage attracts bees with its unique blue hue and star-shaped bloom. These flowers also self-seed, which means they drop seeds before they die and will pop up again in your garden during the next growing season (in other words, less work for you, and more food for the bees!).
Select Beneficial Plants for Bees
While flowers serve as the main food source for bees, other types of plants are also beneficial to bee gardens. Trees, shrubs, and herbs can provide food, shelter, and nesting sites for bees. Again, make sure to take into account what’s native to your area, but consider including these common bee plants.
Many varieties of fruit trees—including plums, apples, peaches, and pears—are ideal for including in a bee garden. The tree’s flowers provide food for bees, and pollination is often necessary to enable the tree to produce fruit.
Bees are attracted to the abundant nectar of many types of flowering herbs, including mint, chives, rosemary, sage, and thyme. The herbs also offer a pleasing fragrance, although that doesn’t impact the bees—they find flowers based on their color, rather than their scent. But the fragrant and useful herbs can certainly make the garden an even more inviting environment for you!
Shrubs are ideal bee plants, because they tend to contain lots of flowers in one condensed area. Their dense foliage can provide nesting materials and shelter—not only for bees, but for birds and other pollinators, as well. Some common plants that bees like include bee brush, blueberry shrubs, ninebark, and berry bushes, including blackberry and raspberry varieties.
Provide Water for Bees
Just like any other animal, bees need water—for drinking as well as a variety of other purposes, such as cooling their beehives, feeding young bees, and diluting stored honey. While other insects are able to get the water they need from their diet, nectar and pollen don’t contain much moisture, so bees need a separate water source.
So what’s the best approach for how to give bees water? To create an inviting environment in your garden, use these tips to provide a safe and effective water source.
Never Give Bees Sugar Water
At some point, you’ve probably come across the idea that you can revive a tired bee by giving it some sugar water. However, that advice is misguided. Providing bees with sugar or honey can spread diseases, such as American foulbrood and dysentery, which can destroy entire bee colonies.
Only experienced beekeepers should consider feeding bees—and in many cases, even trained professionals won’t do it. The water bees drink should never be sweetened, so in your journey to create a bee friendly garden, stick to plain water.
Offer a Safe Watering Source
Bees need a place to stand when drinking from the water source; otherwise, they risk drowning. Fast-flowing fountains and deep containers of water aren’t effective water sources, as they don’t provide a safe perch for the bees.
To create a bee watering dish, start with a shallow pan of water (try a pie pan or a ceramic dish). Then, add in rocks, pebbles, moss, or marbles, which can provide a safe place to land. Or, if you have a deeper source of water, try adding materials that float, such as corks or sponges.
Attract Bees to the Water
Bees locate water sources through scent, rather than sight. While you should never add sugar to a bee’s water, there are some natural alternatives that can make the water smell more alluring to bees. That’s right—the water bees drink can (and should) be dirty. Wet dirt, moss, or aquatic plants can give your bee watering dish a slight smell that has a better chance of attracting bees than clean water from the tap. (Bonus: Water sources that include these natural elements can offer bees a source of vitamins and micronutrients!)
One of the most significant causes of declining bee populations is the increasing use of insecticides, including neonicotinoids. These chemicals are toxic to bees and can lead to the destruction of entire bee colonies. Bees can come into contact with insecticides in several ways:
- Direct contact, which occurs when an insecticide is sprayed directly on a bee
- Residue contact, which happens when a bee visits a flower of a plant that has been treated with an insecticide
- Contaminated nesting material, which occurs when a solitary bee collects nesting material from a plant that has been treated with an insecticide
- Contaminated nesting areas, which can occur when bees nest between crops or near fields that have been treated with an insecticide
Danger of Neonicotinoids
Neonicotinoids are a type of insecticides that have been linked to the decline of bees. The chemicals are absorbed by plants and spread to the plants’ pollen and nectar. Neonicotinoids are toxic to bees and have been shown to change the insects’ behavior. Specifically, the insecticide inhibits bees’ ability to forage and form colonies.
Fortunately, the EPA recently released proposed guidelines that restrict when neonicotinoids can be applied to flowering plants to limit exposure to bees.
Danger of Other Insecticides
Other insecticides are commonly used both on farms and in urban landscapes to control unwanted pests and disease-carrying insects. Bees that come in contact with an insecticide may immediately die; however, they may also carry the insecticide back to their hive, which can potentially infect and kill the entire colony. While unwanted pests can be frustrating, insecticides simply aren’t the answer if you want to maintain a bee-friendly space.
Bee-Safe Insecticide Alternatives
For the safety of the bees, it is best to avoid insecticides altogether. However, if pests and insects are a persistent problem in your bee garden, there are a few natural alternatives you can consider while still caring for bees.
- Epsom salt, which is safe and non-toxic for bees, can keep slugs, snails, and beetles off your plants. Just sprinkle the salt around the base of the plants, or create a half-salt, half-water mixture and spray it on the leaves of the plants.
- Aluminum foil can help repel aphids from your plants. Wrap the base of any affected plants with stripes of foil, and the light reflections will keep pests away.
- Beneficial predatory insects, such as ladybugs, can keep your garden free of pests like aphids, beetles, and flies. Fortunately, many of the flowers that attract bees—such as coneflowers, sunflowers, and mint—are also appealing to ladybugs.
Maintain Your Bee Friendly Yard
Beyond the plants you chose for your garden, there are a few other things you can to do make and keep your yard bee-friendly.
Leave Leaf Litter
When autumn comes, you may be tempted to rake fallen leaves from your yard. However, dead organic matter—such as those fallen leaves—actually provide bees with winter cover and protection from predators.
Add a Bee House
Bee houses may look a lot like bird houses—but instead of attracting birds, they appeal to solitary species of bees. As their name suggests, solitary bees live alone, rather than in hives or colonies. A bee house, which typically contains materials such as hollow reeds or cardboard tubes, gives these pollinators a place to nest. Adding one to your garden is a great way to help solitary bees thrive.
Put a Sign Up
Establishing a bee friendly yard is an accomplishment on its own, but you can also go a step further to educate your community about your efforts. Organizations such as Pollinator Partnership offer free downloadable signs that you can place in your garden to let your neighbors know that your plants and flowers provide food and habitat for bees and other pollinators. You never know—demonstrating your commitment to pollinators may inspire others in your community to start their own bee gardens!
Celebrate World Bee Day
Recognizing the importance of bees to the survival of the world’s ecosystem, the United Nations designed May 20 as World Bee Day. The goal of United Nations’ World Bee Day is to raise awareness of the importance of pollinators, as well as the threats they are currently facing. The UN offers many suggestions for how individuals can make a difference, ranging from buying raw honey from local farms to planting diverse, native plants that will attract and support bees throughout the year.
Fun fact: United Nations’ World Bee Day coincides with the birthday of Anton Janša, a pioneer of modern beekeeping techniques.
Have Yard Certified and Get Sign
To celebrate World Bee Day and demonstrate your commitment to caring for bees, consider getting your yard certified as a bee-friendly garden. Pollinator Partnership’s Bee Friendly Farming (BFF) program offers three levels of membership: certified (designed for farms, wineries, ranches, and other commercial land-use operations), partner (sponsors of the program who don’t necessarily own or manage their own landscapes), and garden (designed for home and community gardeners). These memberships certify that you follow pollinator-friendly guidelines and offer a healthy habitat for bees.
Do Your Part to Save the Bees
Planting and maintaining a bee garden isn’t just good for local pollinators; it’s a relaxing hobby that will produce colorful, inspiring blooms. There’s a lot to consider, from choosing flowers that bees like to providing a safe water source, but once you’ve established your garden, you’ll enjoy it—and the bees it attracts—for years to come. And, you can be proud that you are doing your part to save bees and support the world’s ecosystem.
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