They’re the heavy lifters of pollination, pollinating a third of our crops and 90% of all flowering plants. And yet a glimpse of them makes us jump and run. We’re talking about bees.
The truth is that bees should really be running or flying away from us! Because of us, these critters are in trouble everywhere. Our way of life unleashes such dangers to bees as pesticides, drought, habitat destruction, air pollution, global warming, and more. Because of these threats, half of the native bee species in the Midwest of the US have disappeared from their historic ranges. And four species of bumblebees have declined 96% in the last 20 years.
With such an important role in the ecological fabric, it is essential that we help bees. We can start in our backyards, by making bees feel welcome. “What?” you say, “Bring in more bees? But they sting!” That's only partially true. It's actually only female bees that sting. Male bees have no stingers. A female bee will sting in self-defense (so be mindful of how much of a threat you pose) or in defense of her hive. The good news is that the vast majority of bees are solitary. Out of 4000 species of native bees, 46 have hives. Since a solitary bee does not have a home space to defend, they are unlikely to sting. And fascinating fact: a bee is much too enthralled in its work when foraging on flowers to sting.
So how can we make bees feel at home? For starters, focus on food and shelter.
Bees are basically looking for two things when they visit your plants: nectar and pollen. Nectar is loaded with sugars and is a bee’s main source of energy. And pollen provides a balanced diet of proteins and fats for bees. But not any type of planting will do. There are four thousand different species of bees in North America alone. Each species is a different size, and different tongue lengths. These features allow different species to specialize on feed on variously shaped flowers, thereby cutting out the crowds or the competition.
Since you can't provide for all bee species in your yard, just like your efforts in encouraging caterpillars and boost biodiversity in your yard, give your green spaces a make(under) with native plants. Research suggests native plants are four times more attractive to native bees than exotic flowers. Native plants are also usually well adapted to your growing conditions and can thrive with minimum attention. You can easily check with sources such as the National Wildlife Federation to research local native species that are best for bees in your area.
Another good planting rule of thumb is to meet the needs of specialist bees and generalists will follow. Solid generalist bee plantings include goldenrods, asters, evening primrose, blueberries and native willows.
If you can, provide a range of flower shapes so more bees can benefit. And try to ensure that plants are blooming in your landscape throughout the season because bees have needs beyond the prime summer months. And remember that bees have good color vision to help them find flowers and the nectar and pollen they offer so try to choose a variety of flower colors. A few flower colors that particularly attract bees are blue, purple, violet, white, and yellow.
As much as your backyard bees will appreciate the bountiful nectar and pollen, in order to survive, a bee needs shelter. This doesn't have to be too fancy. Actually Up to 70% of US native bee species nest in the ground.
You can help out ground-nesting bees are easy by making sure that the soil in your yard is loose enough for a bee to excavate. To prevent harming their nests, try not to walk in bare patches of dry soil with a slough southern slope. And do not use lawn fertilizer near the bees. You'll know it's an active nest if you see a bee leaving or entering the hole every few minutes.
As for bees that do not nest in the ground, these bees will do fine nesting within wood or pithy plant stems or in any nook or cranny of the appropriate size such as an abandoned mouse nest in a rock wall. Some plantings with pithy stems include goldenrods, blackberries, giant ragweeds and native hydrangea. Just make sure to leave these plants intact after the summer blooming season. Fall cleanup is hard on bees! When we cut back stems of sunflowers and Black-Eyed Susans, we are destroying their winter habitation.
What about bee hotels?
Many people like to put up insect or bee houses and hotels for their backyard critters. This can be a great way to provide for local insect populations but keep in mind that do come with some dangers for bees. By concentrating nesting opportunities in one large bee hotel we have made it too convenient for predators. We need to make them much smaller with just a few cells and scatter many throughout our yards.