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 plant to help them. And it is true, that 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. These bees are indeed the vast majority of bees, and, only in Maryland, we have about 400 different species of them, going from tiny to very large (check out this awesome free PDF book about bees from our region).
Unlike honeybees, each of these wild bee species has different nesting requirements, and many of them will readily nest 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, who 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, the summer, or the fall).
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 go on and eat the food the mother left for them, and 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 for the offspring and that 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, with some nesting in the ground, where they dig galleries, others digging holes in the wood, others using already-existing cavities, and others parasitizing other bees’ nests (yeah, bees can also 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
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’ll 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
In our region, these bees are represented by the very large shiny carpenter bees of the genus Xylocopa. These bees have strong mandibles that they use to excavate softwood, to build their nests in it. 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, leaving those branches in there will also allow other beneficial organisms to establish in your garden.
Bee hotels! – Cavity-nesting bees
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 by 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 wants 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 those involving little tubes that can be removed, holes drilled into the 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’re trying to support, because they may still be attracted to the nesting site we’re providing, but may eventually become sick and die because the place is 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’re planning your garden this year, I invite you to consider the flowers for your bees, but also count on 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.
Anahí also writes 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!