Gardening For Pollinators: How to Encourage Bees

In Eric Grissell’s book, Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in Gardens he laments that people who are interested in gardening for wildlife invariably choose to encourage butterflies or birds. With all the press about the honey bees suffering from colony collapse disorder, however, there seems to be an upswing in interest in gardening for pollinators. Although the term pollinator does encompass butterflies and birds, bees are generally included as well. In fact, a group in Texas has a new certification program for “bee-friendly gardens.”

What do you need to provide to encourage bees in the garden? Most wildlife gardens concentrate on three areas :  food, water and shelter.

1. Food – Planting Flowers for Bees

Bees collect pollen and nectar for food, which is why they are great pollinators. Planting an array of flowers to bloom throughout the growing season is a good start for providing nectar and pollen they need. Sunflowers are a good choice because they will grow in a wide variety of areas and attract a number of different kinds of bees.

The types of flowers to provide will depend on your local growing conditions. Check with local botanical gardens, nurseries, beekeeping associations, and native plant societies for recommendations. Don’t forget that trees may produce significant nectar and pollen for bees (particularly early in the season), even though they may not have large, showy flowers.

If you plant trees and other flowering plants that supply nectar for well-known bees, like honey bees,

often the lesser-known, but still important solitary bees will also use them.

Sometimes all you need to do is leave the wildflowers you already have.

For example, the humble dandelion tends to flower late into fall and even winter, providing an important late season resource for bees.

In addition to nectar and pollen, bees may also gather a number of different materials from leaves, including nesting components, resin or sap.

2. Providing water for bees

Bees need water to drink. These honey bees are standing on lily pad leaves floating in a pool and drinking the water at the edges. They will use various damp puddles or places where they can walk to edge of the water as water sources. In his book, Eric Grissell shows a simple solar-powered fountain he devised to splash water on rocks. Properly designed and maintained, a water fountain or pool can be a source of a drink for many types of animals.

3. Providing shelter for bees

Providing shelter for bees does not have to be difficult and can even be artistic. Sometimes it may be as simple as leaving a few flower stalks in your garden. For example, our hollyhock stems provide an ideal home for small species of carpenter bees (Genus Ceratina).

Mason bee houses are very popular with both humans and bees, as we see with this video of an European species they have identified as red orchard mason bees (Osmia rufa) colonizing a new bee condo. Listen to them “talk!”

In Tucson, Arizona we have an artist and landscape designer, Greg Corman at Zen Industrial, who does bee habitats that double as sculptures. Some of his bee and lizard habitats are on display at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum.

(Robert Engelhardt made this solitary bee house. Photograph from Wikimedia).

A quick search with Google can yield many places to learn more about bee houses or condos:

Another way to provide a place to live is to leave a patch of bare ground for digger bees to nest. You will need to research the requirements for your area, but leaving a small patch of native soil undisturbed may be helpful.

4. Get to know your local bees

To have a successful pollinator garden, it really pays to get to know what kind of solitary bees live in your area and what their requirements are. The more you know about the tiny bees that share you yard, the better you will be able to meet their needs and the more you will appreciate them.

Now, those of you who have been following my blog will probably know where I’m going next. Yes, I’m talking about gardening for ants. Do you think it is possible to garden for ants? Stay tuned…

Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in Gardens

What is there to do when the ants are not very active outside? Read a book about ants, of course. I just finished Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in Gardens by Eric Grissell, which James Trager had mentioned a few weeks ago (Thank you, James!)

Grissell is an expert on wasps and he writes with a great deal of humor, so this is an interesting read. Although it is geared to the popular audience, and gardeners in general, there’s plenty to please the entomologist as well. I definitely benefited from a brush up on the sawflies, which I hadn’t spent much time on in awhile.

Starting out with an overview of the Order Hymenoptera, what groups make it up and what their economic impact is, Grissell then goes into detail about each group. He calls the sawflies “cows,” the parasitoids “police,” predatory wasps “wolves,” bees are “pollinators, of course, and ants are “recyclers.”

I found his take on the ants to be quite amusing. “The main trouble with ants is, well, basically they all look like ants…” (p. 237). This is from a man who studies parasitoids! Anyway, this may explain why Figure 131 on page 256 is labeled Formica. Just sayin’… (Actually those things often happen in the editorial process.)

Anyway, I did find this view insightful because I have made a New Year’s resolution to figure out our local Pogonomyrmex, and I have to say right now I have a lot of photographs of reddish-orange ants that all look alike:  blurry. 🙂

Seriously though, Grissell laments that when gardeners talk of adding wildlife to the garden, they always concentrate on birds and butterflies. Perhaps this book will convince more people to tolerate, if not actively encourage, the bees, wasps and ants.

Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Timber Press (June 30, 2010)
ISBN-10: 0881929883
ISBN-13: 978-0881929881

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