Plant native flowers and flowering trees and shrubs
Plant a variety of flowers that bloom at different times throughout the year, including early spring and late fall. Focus on native plants, to which local pollinators are already adapted. If you grow exotic ornamentals, focus on “simpler” flower forms rather than highly hybridized varieties (for example, bees have no problem with “dog roses”, but they can’t get inside the “double” varieties with extra petals).
Don’t forget about flowering trees such as apples, plums, pears, and cherries (and bushes like blueberries) if you have space. Even blackberries (kept in check!) will be abuzz with bees when in flower.
Selecting the right plants
Make sure to ask your nursery or seed provider whether the plants or seeds you plan to buy have been pretreated with any pesticides. Pretreatment is still common, particularly with systemic pesticides such as neonicotinoids, which are implicated in bee deaths worldwide. Also, many ornamentals sold to home gardeners are not attractive to pollinators; many are so hybridized they don’t even offer pollen!
Grow your own vegetables and herbs from organic seeds, providing extra sources of food for local bees! Avoid using any pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides in your garden, and encourage others in your community to do the same.
Feeding the bees, family & friends too
It's so deliciously healthy to grow (and share!) your own food. Think tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries, blueberries, melons and pumpkins. Bees love a little spice in their lives too! Try cilantro, basil, fennel, rosemary, thyme and mint.
We can thank insect pollinators for 1 out of every 3 bites of food… and the food they pollinate adds so much to our lives! Without pollinators, all the wind-pollinated plants would be left (such as wheat and corn), but none of the color and diversity that winged pollinators add.
One of my personal favorites to grow would bee artichokes… if you let some flower, they turn into these attractive violet beds of nectar and pollen for bees (like massive thistles)!
Even if you have a lawn, it’s easy to improve it for bees
You’d be surprised at what will turn up if you simply stop mowing (if you have a lawn, that is). Dandelions are a common volunteer. Even though they’re not native to the U.S., they’re still great flowers for all sorts of bees, especially as they show up so early in the year, and flower throughout spring, summer, and late into fall.
- Attracting Native Pollinators (book)
- The Garden Jungle (book)
- How to Fight Plants with Plants (blog)
- Protecting Pollinators at Home (PDF)
Native Wildflower Meadows
- Establishing Pollinator Meadows from Seed (PDF)
- Organic Site Preparation for Wildflower Establishment (PDF)
- Collecting and Using your own Wildflower Seed (PDF)
- Seed Mix Calculator (Excel spreadsheet)
Did you know that America has an estimated 40 million acres of lawn (requiring 3 billion gallons of gas annually to mow it)?
Dandelions and white clover provide abundant nectar and pollen that is easily accessible to a wide range of bees (different types of bees have different tongue lengths, restricting their flower choices to various extents). Red clover favors longer-tongued bumble bees.
Clovers are especially good in lawns, and the white variety flowers at a lower height than the red, so you can still mow occasionally (at your mower’s highest setting) if you choose. It even helps some ground-nesting bees if you keep a patch of closely mowed (or even bare) ground in a sunny spot.
Where has all their habitat gone?
Throughout the world, there have been significant losses in bee habitat. In the United States, grassland prairies—once rich habitats supporting pollinators and wildlife—are now functionally non-existent. Recent surveys suggest close to a 99.9% loss over the last 150 years, primarily due to increasing agricultural intensification. In the United Kingdom, roughly 97% of native wildflower habitats have been lost since the 50s for the same reason.
Similar losses are occurring in other ecosystems that once supported pollinators. Increasing human populations are driving ever-increasing conversion of wild areas for farmland, suburban, and urban purposes. With these areas come other threats to bees, including increased pesticide use, poor habitat management practices (mowing down wildflowers before they are able to set seed), and other varied problems that come with living alongside increasingly dense human populations.
Even increasing honey bee densities can have a negative impact on our many thousands of native bee species. There are tens of thousands of honey bees in a hive, which means that each location requires a plethora of floral resources to support so many more bees. If you’re a beekeeper, you can help by carefully selecting spots for your hives—ensuring there are copious numbers of flowering plants throughout the bee seasons—so that competitive pressures do not reduce native bee populations.
Plant medicines (for bees)
Did you know that bees enjoy caffeinated nectar? While growing coffee, tea or cacao is difficult outside more tropical climates, there's another surprising plant you might consider offering to bees: ornamental tobacco.
This sounds odd, given that synthetic nicotine compounds form the basis of bee-toxic neonicotinoid pesticides. But small amounts of tobacco in nectar can be beneficial. Studies have shown bumble bees visiting tobacco flowers more often when suffering from internal parasites (a common problem for bumble bees), and by ingesting very low levels of nicotine, bees are able to reduce these parasites and thus prolong their lives.
Doubtless many flowers offer their own unique health boosts to bees, so try to plant as many pollinator-friendly flowering plants as possible. The more diverse their diet, the more balanced and nutritious it will bee overall!
What else can I do to help?
Offer spots for bees to live, plus any raw building materials. Create a perfect habitat for bees in your garden, balcony, workplace, or community.
- Operating your own "bee hotel"
- Creating your own "bee bank"
- Observation boxes for solitary bees