This year, host bees in your garden

The sun and the warm(er) days are back! Oh gosh, it felt like forever! And now, of course, I am feeling like I have to get out there and start doing stuff outdoors! And because I love the little creatures, one of the things I want to do is make sure that this year my garden becomes a pollinator’s paradise. If you are in the same boat as me, come along and let’s talk about how to make our gardens inviting to pollinators!

Like us, pollinators need food and a place to live

We hear a lot about pollinators and the plants we can grow to help them. And it is true, to live and thrive pollinators need food, and that food usually comes from plants. Indeed, to sustain pollinators, it is key that we provide food for them. However, we often forget that they need something else to thrive: a place to live! And because there are SO MANY types of pollinators, let’s for this one time focus on only one group, the bees!

Even though many people think only of honeybees when we talk about bees, most bees do not live in colonies like honeybees do, and are in fact solitary. Solitary bees are indeed the vast majority of bees. In Maryland we have about 400 different species of them, going from tiny to very large. Check out this awesome free book about bees from our region.

Unlike honeybees, each of these wild bee species has different nesting requirements, and many of them will nest readily close to our houses if they find the right conditions. Here I will give you some pointers on how to create those conditions to not only attract bees with flowers, but also help them live close to your garden.

How do wild bees live?

Unlike honeybees which lay eggs throughout the growing season, wild bees usually lay eggs only at certain times of the year, meaning that their life cycle is different from that of honeybees. Most solitary bees in fact lay eggs at only one point throughout the growing season (for example, only in the spring, summer, or fall).

orchard bee nest

Wild bees lay eggs in their nests and leave food to them. When the larvae hatch they find the food and can finish their development in the absence of the mother. Photo: USDA ARS.

Whenever they are ready to lay eggs, bee mothers start looking for a place to nest, and it is only during this time that they will be building their nests. Once the eggs are laid, the mother leaves and those eggs stay in the nest along with some food (usually pollen mixed with some nectar). After hatching, the larvae eat the food the mother left for them, and they continue feeding and growing until they are ready to leave the nest as adults, usually the following year. This means that for most bees there is no or very little maternal care of the offspring, and most of the time spent in a bee’s life is as a larva, growing and getting ready for the “outside” world.

Where do wild bees live and how can I help them nest?

Wild bees have a variety of nesting preferences. While some nest in the ground, others dig holes in wood, use already-existing cavities, or parasitize other bees’ nests by consuming the reserves of their hosts (yeah, bees can be sneaky like that!). Understanding this is important, because depending on the resources we provide for nesting, different species will be attracted to our gardens.

Keep some ground undisturbed – Ground-nesting bees

green sweat bees

The green sweat bees are very common in Maryland and can be seen often digging on bare ground and visiting flowers. Photos: J. Gallagher; Ilexin.

If you would like to support these bees in your garden, you can make sure to leave some of your garden soil undisturbed or bare. If you do this, you will realize that many bees will be attracted to that section, and if you pay attention, you will realize that many are actually coming in and out of the ground! These are your ground-nesting bees! In Maryland, some ground-nesting bees that you may have seen visiting flowers are the small and shiny green sweat bees.

Leave some wood in your yard – Carpenter bees

carpenter bee

The large carpenter bees nest in shallow galleries they excavate in soft wood. Photo: Missouri Department of Conservation.

In our region, these bees are represented by the very large shiny carpenter bees of the genus Xylocopa. These bees have strong mandibles they use to excavate soft wood in order to build their nests inside. If you would like to attract these bees to your garden, make sure to leave relatively large branches and logs available for them to nest in. For this, you can turn a corner of your yard a bit wilder, and at the same time, leave branches there to allow other beneficial organisms to establish in your garden.

Bee hotels! – Cavity-nesting bees

bee hotel

Cavity-nesting bees are attracted to bee hotels. Here we have a particularly elaborate bee hotel; you can go simpler at first and then evolve into this if you’re just starting. Photos: M. Lankford; Piqsels.

Unlike carpenter or ground-nesting bees, these bees do not create the cavities, but rather use those that already exist. This is the group of bees that is attracted to those cute bee hotels one can build or buy. A natural option for supporting these bees is also by not cutting down to the ground the hollow stems of some plants at the end of the season. Many bees nest within these stems, and will die if they are chopped-off during the winter. Species in this group of bees nest in the spring, summer, or fall. For this reason, if one wanted to use bee hotels to attract these bees, one should establish them early in the spring.

There are a multitude of types of bee hotels, with some involving little tubes that can be removed, holes drilled into wood, a collection of small hollow twigs and branches, paper rolls, etc. Check out this site to see many options. Independently of the type of bee hotel you want to use, something important is to make sure that you keep the cavities clean for the bees to develop in healthy conditions. Failing to do so may actually harm the bees we are trying to support, because they may continue to be attracted to the nesting site we are providing but may eventually become sick and die because the place was unhealthy.

Now it’s our turn!

I really love watching bees build their nests, independently of what they look like. Maybe I’m just nosy, or maybe this is really why I’m a biologist, but that peek into these little animals’ lives makes me feel connected to them and keeps me in awe at how wonderfully diverse and fascinating life can be. When you are planning your garden this year, I invite you to consider the flowers for your bees, but also count in where you plan to have them live! And then, later in the season, go check those places out; I’m sure you won’t be disappointed!

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

New! Anahí is starting an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!

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