How to Help the Bees: 6 Easy Ways

You've heard the news—native bees and honeybees are struggling in many places. Learn how to help the bees with these simple steps.

honeybee on sunflowerCourtesy Susan Grove/Country magazine
A honeybee collects pollen from a sunflower.

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. Fortunately, there are plenty of easy steps you can take to help bees, many at no cost. Here are some ways to get started.

Meet five beneficial bees you want in your yard.

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 these 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.

Check out more natural ways to eliminate garden insect pests.

Grow Native Plants and Flowers

“Plant native plants, trees and shrubs, reduce lawns and expand the natural areas in your yard,” says Phyllis Stiles, director of Bee City USA, a certification program that helps pollinator populations. 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.

Check out the best flowers that attract bees.

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. 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.

We asked an expert: Here’s the best natural way to kill weeds.

Wait Until Spring to Rake Leaves

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. 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.

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.

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.

Next, learn 7 sweet facts about honeybees.

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Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find her reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.