How to Help Bees and Pollinators in 10 Easy Ways
Native bees and honeybees are struggling in many places. Learn how to help the bees, butterflies and more beneficial bugs with these simple steps.
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Be a Hero to Bees and Pollinators
Bees are a big deal. These unsung heroes of the planet work hard to keep our food supply functioning. And 85 percent of flowering plants and trees rely on pollinators for survival. Bees have been in the news a lot over the last few years. Declines in their populations are cause for alarm in many places. The good news is, people really want to know how to help bees. The problem is, they don’t always go about it in the best way.
Many gardeners are drawn to having an insect-friendly garden—not only because it offers a landing for garden helpers, but also because the plots need less water and pesticides, as well as less effort. Fortunately, there are plenty of easy steps you can take to help bees and other pollinators, many at no cost.
Here’s how to get started.
Meet seven beneficial bees you want in your yard.
1. Fill in the Lawn
Traditional grass lawns reduce habitat and food sources for beneficial bugs and pollinators. Consider converting patches of your lawn from grass to flowers, shrubs or blooming ground covers. It looks fantastic and your garden will be easier to manage once established, notes landscape designer and author of Prairie Up, Benjamin Vogt. He says, “If the plants are layered and chosen correctly to match the site, they will require less maintenance than a lawn.”
2. Avoid Pesticides
This one seems a pretty obvious way gardeners can help bees, right? Of course, it’s not always that easy. Sometimes you have to figure out how to battle an infestation of cabbage worms or Japanese beetles. The key here is to treat problems where and when they happen, rather than applying broad-spectrum pesticides “just in case.”
Additionally, choose plants from local nurseries that don’t treat seeds with systemic pesticides, like neonicotinoids. These pesticides are found throughout the entire plant, and can’t be rinsed off. They kill all insects by attacking the central nervous system. Many states require plants treated with systemic pesticides to be marked as such, and you should definitely avoid them whenever you can.
As a horticulturist and author of Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden, Jessica Walliser skips pesticides and instead attracts beneficial predators to get rid of unwanted visitors— for example, she attracts ladybugs to snap up aphids. If necessary, she moves to physical controls such as hand-picking or using row covers. Those methods take care of minor pest infestations and reduce potential collateral damage to the helpful insects.
Check out more natural ways to eliminate garden insect pests.
3. Grow Native Plants and Flowers
“Plant native plants, trees and shrubs, reduce lawns and expand the natural areas in your yard,” says Phyllis Stiles, Founder/Director Emerita of Bee City USA, an initiative of the Xerces Society. One of the major problems with mixed wildflower seed packets is that they may contain invasive plant seeds like Chinese forget-me-nots, which can out-compete native plants and disrupt ecosystems. Other plants in these seed packets may not thrive in your area.
The best way to help provide the nectar and pollen bees need is to plant the native wildflowers they seek out. Those plants vary widely by region, so start by contacting your local extension office for suggestions. You can also use the tools provided by the Xerces Society’s Pollinator Conservation Resource Center. Their interactive regional map will help you locate the right wildflowers to help bees in your area.
Native plant species “have coevolved with pollinators to produce the right nectar at the right time of year,” says Jessica. They are a better choice than cultivars, which may not produce as much pollen.
Check out the best flowers that attract bees.
4. Welcome Plant Diversity
In wild spaces or gardens, variety in plants creates stability. Jessica says, “The more diversity you have in shapes, colors and structures, the more beneficial insects and pollinators you will have in the garden.”
Learn how to attract butterflies in 9 easy ways.
5. Be Kind to Weeds
On that same note, don’t be too quick to pull or mow weeds. After all, what you consider a “weed” may be a wildflower that bees depend on.
“Sometimes the plants that are the most useful in attracting pollinators are the ones we call weeds,” says ecological landscape designer Jessi Bloom, whose Washington garden buzzes with visitors to her wild yarrow, clover, fennel and even dandelions.
Consider leaving a patch of your yard as wild as possible. If space allows, plant a wildflower meadow. Additionally, contact your local government and urge them to consider mowing roadsides and medians less frequently, to allow wildflowers that grow there to thrive. Of course, you do want to control invasive and poisonous plants.
6. Plan for a Full Year of Blooms
Try to provide pollen for the entire growing season. Start the year with winter or early spring blooms such as crocus, heath and witch hazel, then transition to spring with phlox and columbine, and finish out fall with members of the aster family.
7. Do Less Work for More Pollinator Benefits
Raking leaves seems like the quintessential fall chore. But if you want to help bees, it’s better to leave leaves alone when you can, at least until late spring. Many types of wildlife depend on leaf litter to stay warm and safe over the winter, including queen bees. Leaf litter also protects plants from harsh weather.
When you skip fall raking and cutting back plants that can remain standing through winter, the spent stalks and patches of debris create homes for overwintering critters. So here’s your mandate to leave the leaves.
In spring, try to wait until the local fruit trees like apples and pears have finished blooming—that’s when most bees have emerged from winter hiding and it’s safe to rake. Fall leaves also make great mulch for your lawn.
Jessica leaves perennials intact for overwintering insects and allows wool carder bees to steal lamb’s ears’ plant fuzz. Her garden is a bustling and balanced ecosystem.
8. Create Nesting and Overwintering Spots for Pollinators
“Seventy percent of bee species nest in the ground,” Phyllis says. “Reserving areas of dry, bare, undisturbed ground provides places for them to raise their young in the early spring.”
The remaining 30 percent of native bees nest in tunnels in stumps and snags, so leave some stumps and dead wood in your landscape. Drill holes in blocks of untreated lumber for bee habitats. If you’re feeling especially hospitable, erect a bee hotel, a structure with stacked, narrow tubes that mimics a bee’s natural living quarters. Avoid placing the bee hotel in shade, which might attract unwanted wasps. Have it facing southeast. Bees like to be warm in the morning before heading out to gather pollen.
Psst—these bee photos are un-bee-lievably cute!
9. To Help Bees, Learn About Bees
The Xerces Society is an excellent place to start. Most of us are familiar with bumblebees, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Take the time to learn about all the bees that live in your area, so you can recognize them and know which especially need your help. And become an advocate: Petition for a community or school garden, and campaign to grow native plants in public spaces.
Learn 7 sweet facts about honeybees.
10. Take the Pollinator Pledge
If you’re already gardening for beneficial bugs, take the Xerces Society Pollinator Pledge. Join more than 10,000 gardeners in the project at xerces.org. To support pollinators, gardeners promise to:
- Grow pollinator friendly flowers
- Provide nest sites for bees and butterflies
- Find pesticide alternatives
- Talk to neighbors about pollinators’ importance
Next, learn how to attract and host mason bees.