13 Ways to Help the Bees

Our gardens used to buzz with bees; now these useful pollinators are disappearing. Find out what to do.
Cup Plant with Bee

Cup Plant with Bee

Large numbers of bees started dying off in the 1990s, and experts say these important pollinators are still in trouble.

Photo by: Courtesy of Crown Bees / Photo by Jennifer Baker

Courtesy of Crown Bees / Photo by Jennifer Baker

Large numbers of bees started dying off in the 1990s, and experts say these important pollinators are still in trouble.

Bees are in trouble--and that means we're in trouble, too. Bees don’t just benefit the beautiful flowers in our gardens. They also pollinate an estimated 1/3 of our food crops and up to 90% of wild plants, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

Without bees, some foods may become harder to find in stores, and prices could go up. 

Scientists think bees are dying because of increased use of insecticides, as well as a rise in viruses, parasites and pathogens that affect them. Even transporting hives long distances, to pollinate crops in other areas, may be stressing them and causing large numbers to perish. 

While researchers study these issues, there are things we can do in our own backyards. Use our tips below to help a bee and help the natural world.

1. Feed the bees. Bees consume pollen and nectar, so why not add a “bee buffet” to your garden? Plant flowers, especially natives, and use fewer hybrids, which don't usually yield much pollen for them. Since bees need to eat all the time, grow plants that bloom in spring, summer and fall, and grow the single flowers they prefer, instead of doubled blooms. Good choices for a bee garden include:

  • Sunflowers
  • Asters
  • Bee balm
  • Cosmos
  • Snapdragons
  • Hostas
  • Goldenrod
  • Hyacinths
  • Calendulas
  • Zinnias
  • Sedums
  • Coneflowers
  • Salvias

 2. Grow a container garden. If space is limited, plant in pots, window boxes or hanging baskets. Let herbs do double-duty, and snip some for the kitchen. Then let the rest set flowers. 

3. Avoid pesticides as much as possible. Horticultural oils and soap sprays that are labeled non-toxic to wildlife are a better choice. If you must use pesticides, spray early in the morning or late in the evening, when bees are less active, and start with a product that targets your specific problem. Don’t use broad-spectrum pesticides that kill indiscriminately. 

4. Control garden pests by handpicking them. Wear gloves, or remove pests with chopsticks or tweezers. Try letting beneficial insects like ladybugs, praying mantis and green lacewings gobble up some of the bugs that plague you. Many "good bugs" are available by mail-order. 

5. Provide water. Even bees need fresh, clean drinking water. Shallow birdbaths will work; bees will also sip from sprinklers or water features.  

6. Leave some untended areas in your yard or landscape. Not all bees live in hives, like honeybees. Others nest in dead stumps, holes in trees or weedy patches. Some species even tunnel into the soil to nest, if they can find a spot that hasn’t been tilled or otherwise disturbed. Resist the urge to tidy up every part of your garden, and leave a few untamed patches where bees can find shelter. 

7. Give bees a home. Gentle Mason bees and leafcutters will set up housekeeping in houses you can buy or make. Place the house in a spot that gets warm morning sun and some afternoon shade, if you live in a hot climate. Keep it about head-high, and near sources of pollen and mud, if you’re trying to attract mason bees. 

8. Reduce your lawn. Save time and money on your mowing, and grow wildflowers or natives where you once had grass. Dandelions and clover, if you can live with them, are bee favorites, and they're packed with pollen.

9. Buy local, organically-grown foods. Support organic gardeners and farmers by buying from them, so they'll continue to raise crops without using bee-toxic chemicals or pesticides.  Support your local beekeeper, too. Better still, consider becoming a beekeeper. Ask your local extension service (find an office here) for advice on getting started. They may be able to put you in touch with beekeeping groups in your area. 

10. Feed the birds. Some birds eat insects, but you may be able to save some bees by offering bird seed or other foods in feeders placed around your garden. 

11. Talk to your neighbors. The bees that visit your garden will travel to neighboring areas, so talk to others about reducing their use of chemicals that might harm these busy pollinators. 

12. Grow a variety of plants. To keep your bees happy and well-fed, grow a mix of plants, including vegetables, herbs, flowers, fruit and nut trees and shrubs. 

13. Stay informed about what’s happening with our bees. If you hear that research funding is being cut, drop your senators and representatives a note to ask for their support.  Not sure who represents you? Find your contacts here.

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