By Dawn Klingensmith
As a garden designer, Kate Frey judges the vitality of her creations not by the appearance and performance of the flowers but by the variety of bees, butterflies, and other beneficial critters that visit them. Planting gardens that attract and sustain bees are especially important because they pollinate food crops and face worsening pressures including habitat loss and lack of forage. Frey urges homeowners to do their part to ease these pressures by providing flower-rich, bee-friendly landscape features.
“Without a lot of effort we can really make a difference, but it matters what we plant,” says Frey, co-author with Gretchen LeBuhn of “The Bee-friendly Garden” (Ten Speed Press, 2016). “Luckily for bees and humans alike, we tend to be drawn to the same flowers. A lot of the traditional favorites are bee-friendly.”
There’s more to a bee-friendly yard than a profusion of flowers. Incorporate these seven elements and practices to create a space that’s as pleasing to pollinators as it is to people.
Bees need pollen and nectar from blooms produced by trees, bushes, annuals and perennials, vegetables, and herbs. “Lawns – unless they have flowering weeds in them – don’t provide for bees,” says Lois Berg Stack, sustainable agriculture professor and extension specialist in ornamental horticulture at the University of Maine.
Seed remaining grass with bee-friendly clover, and give a section of lawn over to dandelions each spring because they are the first abundant food source for bees emerging from winter hibernation.
Native plants are uniquely adapted to your region’s soil and climate. Hybridized plants, though not harmful to bees, are bred to produce scant amounts of nectar and pollen, according to the Honeybee Conservancy.
The USDA’s online Plant Hardiness Zone* maps indicate which trees, shrubs, and perennials will survive year-round climate conditions in your region.
Bees need food from early spring through late fall. Provide resources throughout the year by planting several different types of flowers in spring, summer, and fall with overlapping bloom times. Enticing menu items include honeysuckle, crocus, hyacinth, calendula, coneflowers, phlox, snapdragons, zinnias, asters, goldenrod, hostas, lavender, mint, oregano, and rosemary.
“There’s a combination of trans-seasonal blooming plants to fit every space,” says horticulturist Michaela Medina Harlow, author of The Gardener’s Eden blog. “Go for flowering plants with basic shapes and avoid double-flowering cultivars with frilly centers.”
Large patches of flowers of the same variety – 3-by-3-foot plots are generally recommended – are more enticing and rewarding to pollinators than a dispersal. You can still mix and match flowers in beds as long as you have same-species swaths or clumps.
“Bees practice flower constancy, especially honeybees,” Frey says. “They’re creatures of efficiency and prefer to keep coming back to the same concentrated food source.”
Shallow water with a landing platform is best. “Bees don’t walk on water any better than we do and can drown in an open pond,” Stack says. “A birdbath is good if you float a piece of wood in it.”
A pie dish with pebbles also works and is easy to replenish. Changing the water frequently will prevent it from becoming a mosquito-breeding site.
While honeybees live in hives and colonies, natives ranging from tiny sweat bees to fat, fuzzy bumblebees have different habitat requirements.
“If we’re not quite so tidy in our gardening activities, the bees will have an easier time finding places to nest,” says Stack, adding that unkempt hedges, weedy spots, and bare, sandy patches provide cover for a variety of bees.
Leave a few untidy spots at the edges of your landscape or add nesting blocks or boxes for tunnel- and cavity-dwelling bees. You can buy bee blocks and boxes online or find instructions to build them.
Bees are weakened or killed by pesticides and other chemical applications. Residual amounts can remain on plants treated before purchase, so find an organic seed and plant supplier, Harlow recommends.