How to Help Bees in the Garden
Tips for how to help bees by providing them with the shelter, water, and food. Includes ways to help honeybees, bumble bees, and solitary bees.
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If I asked you to list all the types of bees that you know, how many could you name? Chances are that you’d say honey bees and bumblebees. Two is a good start but incredibly we have 75 different species of bees on the Isle of Man. The United Kingdom has 272, the United States has around four thousand, and worldwide there are almost twenty thousand species of bees. Nearly all species of bee around the world is under threat, which is why it’s becoming so important to help bees living around our homes.
There are many ways to help bees in the garden and this piece will give you ideas including plants to grow, habitat to create, and features you can create. It also includes information on how to identify bees such as honeybees, bumblebees, and solitary bees.
Grow Plants for the ‘June Gap’
One of the best way we can help bees is by planting bee-friendly flowers. These are flowers rich in the pollen and nectar that bees need for food. It’s also better to grow a variety of flowers, too. Types that bloom from as early as possible in spring to your first frost. Each region will be different, but here I see bees on crocus flowers as early as February. They’re busy buzzing and collecting nectar all through spring, summer, and autumn too.
However, while there are a lot of wild flowers in spring and late summer, June can surprisingly be a difficult time for bees. Choosing to grow plants that flower during the “June Gap” can support bees when they need it most. Two shrubs in particular, cotoneaster and pyracantha, are ideal for feeding bees, during the June gap. Another great bee-friendly plant choice is a mixed-species wildflower meadow.
Plant Flowering Shrubs and Trees
They say that a single flowering tree has more food value for bees than an entire field of wildflowers. It’s true, too! Trees such as apple, sycamore, and hazel can produce an incredible amount of nectar in spring. There are types that flower at various points throughout the summer too. Cotoneaster and pyracantha are great for the June gap, and shrubs like fuschia will be covered in happy bees in late summer. So if you really want to help bees living in your area, plant a tree or shrub that you know will produce food for them.
Help Bees By Letting Wild Plants Grow
In spring, some of the most important sources of food are willow catkins, bluebells, wild garlic, and dandelions. Bees feast and forage on wild flowers all summer long then, in my region, cover ivy flowers in early autumn. One thing that all of these plants have in common is that they’re wild! So instead of planting flowers for bees, it might be better to allow more wild plants and ‘weeds’ to grow and flower. Allow weeds to have their place and more wildlife will have food.
Provide Bees with Shelter
Bees need homes to live in and to rear their young. Honeybees of course live in beehives, either made by people or created by the bees themselves in trees, buildings, or other empty cavities. Some people who want to support honeybees without becoming a beekeeper. will create sun hives or log hives for honeybees to live in.
Bumblebees make nests in the ground, rock piles, or even old rodent burrows but you can make bumblebee nests for them too. Solitary bees, such as carpenter bees and mason bees, lay their eggs in holes in walls and wood. Mining bees will create burrows in the ground, especially in sandy soil. Providing these types of places around your home will encourage bees to take up residence.
One way you can help bees is by leaving piles of leaves, stones, and wood in quiet places in the garden. Hold off on tidying too. Getting a head start on your spring cleaning might leave bees and other wildlife homeless when they need shelter the most.
Build Insect Hotels for Bees
In early spring, build insect hotels for bees to both nest and hibernate in. They let you play host to many other insects and invertebrates too. The smaller types that are for sale in garden centers are practically useless though, so don’t fall for them. Larger ones are much more attractive to wildlife and don’t need to cost much money to make. Begin by stacking 5-8 wood pallets together in a shady part of the garden. Fill the empty spaces with bamboo canes, wood, straw, bricks, twigs, terracotta pots, and other natural materials.
When sourcing pallets, always look for a stamp on the side. If you see the initials HT, it means that it’s been heat treated and is safe. If you see MB instead, avoid it since it stands for methyl bromide, an insecticide. It mainly kills insects that burrow into, or eat, wood but you don’t want an insecticide lurking in your insect hotel!
Give Bees a Drink
All animals need water, including bees. In the wild, they’ll perch on stones or vegetation close to the water’s edge and drink. Water sources in the garden can be a little more tricky for them, though. Though they’ll be drawn to water in buckets, there’s no place for them to land. If they attempt to drink from vessels like this, they can drown.
Instead, fill shallow dishes with pebbles and water and set them in the garden. Bees and other insects will appreciate the safe drink. You can also create watering stations for bees in your garden pond or bird bath. These could be as simple as stones that jut out from the water, but they could also be elements that float.
Identifying Types of Bees
We can, of course, create various habitats for bees in our gardens and plant a wide array of flowering plants. However, learning which bees are visiting your garden more often can help you to help them. If you have a lot of mason bees around, or mining bees, then you can perhaps focus on helping them in particular. If you have just a small garden, then creating a small niche for your most common type of bees makes sense.
With thousands of species of bees out there, how can you find out which ones live in your garden? The best way is to spend time in the garden and watch the bees. Take photos and notes of where you spotted them, which flowers they were on, behavior, and their physical characteristics. Use these notes and photos to compare against a guide such as those just below. The most common bees you’ll spot in the garden are honeybees and bumblebees, though, and you’ll find information in the next section.
- A Guide to North America’s Bees (book)
- Native Bees of North America
- Field Guide to Bees of Great Britain and Ireland (book)
- British Bumblebee Guide
- Australian Bees
- Native Bees of New Zealand
Honey bees live in colonies that are up to 80,000 insects strong in the summer and reduce to around 10,000 in the winter. They include a single queen bee, a few hundred drones (male bees), with the rest being female worker bees. Honeybees can be fiercely protective of their home and produce a large amount of honey. Their queens live for about five years, though most of the workers and drones live for about six weeks. In the spring and summer months, baby bees are constantly being born!
Though most honey bees today live in man-made hives, the colony will often split into swarms in early summer. These swarms will fly away to set up a second colony and they seem very attracted to chimneys, roofs, attics, and sheds. They’re especially attracted to the scent of other bees so if you’d like your own colony, set up a used hive in the garden. Before long it may be filled with honey bees.
- About 15mm (half an inch) long
- Segmented bodies with fine hair covering their body
- Often spotted with yellow ‘pollen baskets’ on their legs
- Two sets of wings
- Short tongue, so long flowers can be difficult for them to feed on
- Coloration tends to be warm to dark brown with honey to yellow colored striations
- British black bees can appear almost black
Thanks to honey labels and cartoons, many people think that fuzzy bumblebees are honey bees. They’re actually very different in both appearance and behavior, once you start paying closer attention to them. Worldwide there are about 250 species of bumblebees. They’re social, like honeybees, though their colonies are smaller than honey bees at only about 50-400 individuals.
Bumblebee colonies work a little differently to honeybee colonies too. Though they have a queen, she will only live for about a year in temperate climates. New queens are born in the autumn and hibernate alone in the winter. In spring, each bumblebee queen wakes up, builds a new nests and raises a new colony. Then in autumn she produces new queens before she and all the bumblebees in the colony die. It’s a sad sight to see them sitting lifeless on late-blooming flowers but it’s part of their natural rhythm. In more tropical places bumblebees can live more than a year.
After coming out of hibernation, a queen bumblebee will look for a desirable place to build her colony. It could be a vacated rodents nest, under a shed, an overgrown hedge, or even untidy places in the garden. Once she finds a place she’ll settle in to lay her eggs and raise young. They’re mainly workers until later in the season when the queen lays eggs for drones and baby queen bees. These new queens are the ones that will hibernate and found a new colony the next spring.
- Big and fuzzy
- 19-38 mm (0.75-1.5 inches) long
- Loud buzzing
- Tongues of varying length depending on species. Short to long.
- Varying colors of black, yellow, white, and even blue
Bumblebees and honey bees represent just a fraction of the world’s bees. Amazingly, 98% are solitary bees that most people wouldn’t notice or confuse with more well-known bees. Harmless to people and pets, solitary bees are prolific pollinators and can be far better at that task than honey bees. Some say up to 100 times better.
Unlike their more social relatives, solitary bees don’t live in colonies. That’s probably why they aren’t aggressive since they’re not defending a hive. Instead, up to 70% of them nest in the ground and the others find homes in nooks in crannies of trees, walls, buildings, and burrows and nests of other animals and insects. Solitary bees describe a bee’s behavior rather than how it looks. There are many types of solitary bee including:
- Leafcutter bees
- Mason bees
- Mining bees
- Carpenter bees