The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Bee Friendly in your Garden

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

Unless they show up as car-sized beasts devouring people and property, insects seldom surface as the topic of conversation around the coffee pot. However the plight of honey bee decline is now a part of our public psyche. Honey bee losses are serious. Unfortunately they aren't the only bees and pollinators with problems. Bumble bees and other native bees are also suffering population losses.

While the reasons for decline are many, we gardeners can be a positive influence on bee populations. Researchers have found that backyard bee-friendly gardens can make a difference in the diversity of bees in a community.

The good news is a bee-friendly garden is also a pretty people-friendly garden. We enjoy many of the same plants as bees. We just need to add a few elements for a bee-friendly garden. Like all living creatures bees need food, water, shelter and a nice place to raise the kids. Many references exist to help, but here are a few of the basics.

Bees need flowers. Bees require pollen and nectar to feed to their developing bee babies. Adult bees also feed on nectar.

Food is generally provided by flowers, but not just any ol' flower. A bee-friendly garden contains flowers that want to be pollinated by bees: flowers that need bees. In general flowers need to be pollinated so they can form seeds and new plants. Certain flowers have evolved to be bee attractors. They have specific traits: bee attractive flower colors, shapes and sizes; flowers with appropriate nectar; and flowers that present pollen in bee-friendly ways. There are short-tongued bees and long-tongued bees so flower shape and size is particularly important. Bees get food and the flowers get pollinated. Everybody is happy.

Good bee plants include asters, beebalm, wild roses, Joe Pye weed, great blue lobelia, white indigo, lead plant, blazing stars, beard tongue, bellflowers, hollyhocks, monkshood, snapdragons, sunflowers, foxglove, mints, tomatoes, butterfly weed, goldenrod, larkspur, milkweeds, herbs and many more bee-utiful flowers. Try to use native plants and not cultivars of native plants. Ornamental changes within cultivated plants may not provide the necessary attributes of a good bee flower. Exotic plants such as butterfly bush can provide food for bees and butterflies; however, native plants provide food for a greater diversity of bees.

Bees also appreciate a large area to graze, so plant four-foot wide masses of the same flower. As flower gardeners we are always trying to have flowers blooming all season. A gardener's goal that is also good for bees.

Allow spaces between masses of flowers to provide shelter from wind and cold.

Limit or eliminate the use of pesticides. When using pesticides, always choose the least toxic.

If you are worried about luring something into your garden that can sting, keep in mind bees are not bullies looking for a fight. A happy bee is like a gardener in a garden center, focused on each flower.

Bees also need a nice place to raise the kids. Native bees make nests in a variety of places such as pieces of wood, cavities or in the ground. To help bees complete their life cycle consider adding nesting habitats. Many bees will defend their nests so developing a nesting site in an out-of-the-way place will make everyone happier including the bees.

For more information on constructing bee nests and information about bee-friendly gardens, check out the fact sheets available from the Xerces Society.

If you like photography and want to become involved in citizen scientist bee research, become a BeeSpotter

For an interesting book about gardens and nature - Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in our Gardens by Doug Tallamy.

For great views of bee-friendly flowers, check out local garden walks.

June 14 Vermilion County Master Gardeners

June 21 Champaign County Master Gardeners

View Article Archive >>