Every gardener, from the casual petunia planter to the competitive crookneck squash grower, has gotten the memo: make your gardens pollinator friendly, because if we lose our bees, we lose our flowers and our food! But how does that awareness translate to actionable steps we can all take in our own backyards?
Jeff Tome, senior nature educator, marketing director, and “bee guy” at the Audubon Community Nature Center, spends a great deal of time and energy studying these tiny heroes and how to best preserve their numbers.
“What’s fascinating to me is that a lot of times, when people think about bees, they just think about honeybees,” Tome says. “But New York has over 350 different species of bees—there is just an incredible range and diversity of bees in this state.”
Regardless of species, though, all those buzzin’ cousins share the same short list of must-haves. They need steady food sources, constant access to water, places to nest and ride out the cold months, and to not be poisoned with fertilizers and pesticides.
Ring the dinner bell
As for what to plant in your garden, think variety and longevity.
“At the Audubon, we have pollinator gardens and butterfly gardens and native plant gardens,” explains Tome. “When we create them, we are focused on blossoms that last through all three seasons. Bees like a range of flowers, too.”
According to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (xerces.org), gardeners in the Great Lakes region can do the most good by providing habitats for bees that are rich in wildflowers. Nectar is bees’ primary food source, and female bees bring pollen home to feed their little ones. Native wildflowers have the advantage of being low maintenance, as well—they require less water than non-native blooms and don’t need to be pampered. Plants like wild lupine, dotted mint, purple coneflower, and calico aster will keep the pollen party going all summer long.
But, notes Tome, don’t forget to think big.
“When you are planting a garden with bees in mind, think about trees and shrubs,” he says. “They like maples and redbuds. Flowering trees are one of bees’ main food sources in early spring.”
Broadening your definition of beauty might also be helpful. Think of it this way: every time you pull out a dandelion, a bee loses its dinner.
“Let the dandelions and violets grow!” says Tome. “Bees often depend on the nectar from all those colorful yard ‘weeds’ to survive.”
Less work for you and more food for them? It’s a win-win!
Provide fresh (shallow) water
This one is easy. All living things need water, but keep it shallow for bees, to reduce their chances of drowning or becoming exhausted by trying to swim. This can be as simple as filling a bowl with pebbles and water or setting out saucers in a few places throughout your garden. Make sure to check them often and refill as needed—bees won’t be the only thirsty visitors this growing season.
Give them shelter
Not all bees live in hives they build themselves. Some species live in ground nests or in hollow crevices in trees or dead logs. Some bees live in groups, while others prefer a solitary lifestyle. Also, bees may spend the winter months in different digs than they move into for the spring and summer, kind of like Western New York snowbirds!
“Bees in New York have different ways of ‘winterizing,’” says Tome. “There is no simple answer to how bees spend the winter.”
To help bees find the shelter they need, don’t do too much cleanup in the fall. If there is a dead log at the edge of your yard, leave it there. If a pile of leaves gets swept against your back fence, don’t rake it up. If you need to cut a tree down, consider leaving the stump alone to decompose naturally.
In warmer months, look for bee activity around trees and yard debris and along the ground, especially before you mow. If you notice several bees hanging around in one spot, steer clear, and keep pets out of the area. The bees probably have a nest there and disturbing it could lead to stings.
Ditch the poisons
Harmful garden chemicals like fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides are killing bees at alarming rates. Bees are exposed to these toxins directly, through sprays; and indirectly, by eating poisoned nectar and nesting on or with contaminated material. The less clean, green space bees can access, the more their numbers will shrink.
“Forget the pesticides,” says Tome. “If you want bees to have a long life, you can’t poison their flowers and you can’t poison your yard.”
Instead, expand your garden horizons with new knowledge and adjusted thinking. Skip synthetic fertilizers and research natural compost. Plant native species that you won’t need to fuss over. Learn to love the cheerfulness of dandelions. Look up organic pest deterrents and plant insect- and disease-resistant varieties of flowers and vegetables. After all, isn’t the joy of discovery why you fell in love with gardening in the first place?
Creating a bee-friendly garden isn’t as hard as you may have thought. By letting the dandelions grow and leaving the brush pile to rot, it means less work for you! To increase your positive impact, encourage your neighbors to adopt the same practices, so bees feel welcome up and down your street. As a reward, you’ll all have healthier gardens, enjoy more flowers and vegetables, and hear the best song of the summer—the contented drone of bees buzzing around your backyard!