A major aspect of sustainable landscaping is using native plants to support habitat. Although one goal is to support bird and mammal habitat, we should also recognize the habitat native plants provide for native bees. Unlike exotic bees that have become naturalized in the United States (honey bees, yellow jackets), most native bees are solitary creatures. As solitary creatures, they are less aggressive than the aforementioned exotic bees because they do not have to protect a hive. To provide habitat for these local pollinators, there are many ways we can easily adapt our landscapes.
10 Ways We Can Support Our Native Bees:
1) Use native plants– Some of our native bees will use many different plants to collect pollen and nectar. These bees are called generalists. Other bees can only use specific plants because of the quality of the nectar or pollen of a plant, or because of the time of year in which the bees are active, or even the types of mouth parts they have that only correspond to specific plants. These bees are called specialists. Some specialist bees even require specific floral oils or fats for building their nests, which they can only get from specific native plants. For example, bees of the Macropis genus can get nectar anywhere, but they specifically require pollen from loosestrife flowers to feed their larvae.
2) Flowers of different shapes- There are approximately 4,000 different species of bees native to North America. They range in all different colors and sizes. Even the methods they use for collecting pollen and nectar can range from one species to another. To invite as many species as possible, having a wide variety of flower shapes and sizes is important. Flowers are not only limited to perennials either. Most trees and shrubs flower as well. Although, those flowers may not be showy to us, to some bees it may be just what they need.
3) Flowers of different colors- Not only does it make for a beautiful and vibrant garden, planting flowers of many different colors will attract many different types of bees. Flower colors found to attract native bees the most are blue, violet, purple, white, and yellow. Many native plants naturally bloom in those colors, which makes it that much easier when selecting.
4) Flowers for different seasons- To ensure bees have the pollen and nectar they need all year, use plants that bloom at different times. Extend the season even longer with one of my favorite late blooming plants, Aster oblongifolius (also called Symphyotrichum oblongifolius). The cultivars you’re likely to find are ‘October Skies’ Aster or ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ Aster. This is one of the last perennials you’ll find blooming and because of that, it is abuzz with bees of all shapes and sizes late into October, even November. For early bloomers, spring ephemerals provide flowers before trees even leaf out.
5) Plant flowers in clumps- Having a large group of flowers instead of individual pockets is more likely to attract bees. Consider mixing flower colors and sizes within the groupings for aesthetics as well as attracting different bee species.
6) Leave dry flowers standing over winter– The soft or hollow pith within many perennial stems is excellent habitat for native bees over the winter. Solitary female bees will lay their eggs in this protective casing, creating separate brood cells for each egg. Depending on the species, a bee may create anywhere from one to sixty cells. She also provides food in each brood cell for when the young hatch. This food consists of nectar and pollen and is referred to as bee bread or pollen balls.
7) Reduce lawn area- Many native bees are ground pollinators. Although they are not particularly picky about what covers the ground they are nesting in, lawn mowers can kill bees. By reducing lawn area, bees are less likely to be chopped by machines. Plus by converting the lawn into plantings of perennials, shrubs, and trees, there are more pollen and nectar sources available for our bees.
8) Leave areas of bare ground- Considering that almost 70% of native bees are ground-nesters, allowing some ground space to remain un-vegetated makes it easier for these bees to make their home. Native bees prefer a well-drained soil, preferably with southern exposure.
9) Allow dead trees and twigs to remain- Some bees prefer to nest in old beetle holes left in dead wood. Although it is not always appropriate to leave dead trees up around a property, sometimes it can be done artistically and provide habitat for native bees as well. If it is inappropriate to leave dead wood on your site, consider making or buying nesting blocks or stem/tube bundles.
10) Reduce pesticide use- Bees are tiny creatures that are highly susceptible to chemical toxins. If possible, eliminate pesticide use completely and control pests by installing the right plant in the right place so plants can fight off pests themselves. If for some reason you still find the need to reach for pesticides, try to make applications when plants aren’t in bloom. It is better to use large granules instead of fine dusts or sprays. And instead of broadcasting a pesticide over a large area, use it only where you need.
For many gardeners and property owners, it is easy to get started with a number of these steps. It may require a bit more planning to reduce lawn or allow dead trees to remain, but as the situation arises, consider helping our small pollinator friends. The return is greater than we can imagine.
For more information on native bees (and there’s plenty out there!) start by visiting some of these excellent websites and web documents:
Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees
Pollinator Partnership: Stressors Affecting Bees (both honey and native)
The Xerces Society: Mid-Atlantic Plants for Native Bees
The Xerces Society: Native Bee Biology
The Xerces Society: Nests for Native Bees