Gardening with bees

A bumblebee gathering pollen from a zucchini flower. 

As gardening season draws to an end – or mostly to an end – in my part of the world (southwestern Ontario), it is important to consider how you can create spaces in your garden for bees so that next year you can garden with bees.

Before I start giving practical advice on how to create an amazing winter habitat for urban wild bees I need to point out the difference between gardening “for” and gardening “with” our most important pollinators. Gardening for bees is an excellent goal: bees are facing a crisis due to multiple factors including increased systemic pesticide use (mainly neonicotinoids), loss of habitat, and climate change. Honey bees are suffering, yes, but in many ways wild bees are suffering even more because they are not actively managed by humans. Several species of bumble bees, for example, are on endangered or vulnerable species lists in Canada. Gardening for bees – planting the flowers they need for gathering pollen and nectar, leaving some appropriate habitats for them, and providing them with water – are excellent practices. However thinking of yourself as doing something for bees does not highlight the relationship that actually exists between humans and bees. It also keeps people in a mindset that our yards belong to us and we can choose to share it with other animals – or choose not to.

In reality, our yards and other “human” spaces are actually part of an ecosystem in which we are fully embedded. They may “belong” to us (or our landlord) but in reality the concept of ownership is only meaningful to other people.  It is impossible to actually own a flower, or the air that spreads its pollen, or the water that falls as rain onto the ground. As much as we try, we cannot prevent animals from making our spaces their spaces. Because of this we are always – ALWAYS – co-creating space with other animals. We can do our hardest to make sure our spaces are inhospitable to the majority of wild critters (although there will always be many animals that can live with us anyway cue the rat and the cockroach)  or we can actively work to create spaces in which they can make their homes, find food, and raise their young. In turn, they make the space theirs, and we can fully embrace a relationship of not only co-existence but co-creation. Gardening with bees means giving them spaces to live, letting them live where they choose, and opening yourself up to the co-creation of your garden with bees and other critters. Maybe the bees will pollinate a few types of flowers and those plants will flourish in your garden over other types of plants. Maybe the bees will ignore your custom built bee house and nest in your dead Joe Pye Weed stems instead. Maybe, along with the bees, come their cousins the wasps. Embrace it as much as you can.

When people garden for bees, they first of all tend to only want bees and butterflies in their space. They often have a predetermined idea of what their garden will look like in terms of what flowers will grow where and where the bees will nest. Gardening with bees means you are open to letting a bee-friendly ecosystem unravel organically in which the bees – and other critters – are active participants along you, the gardener.

So, how do you garden with bees in the winter? All animals, bees included, need food, shelter, and water. You can provide these for them and also create the conditions so they find it for themselves. I have learnt, for example, that a bamboo bee hotel is not always where the bees actually want to nest. Mine remains empty even though bees flourish in my backyard.


Bees are getting ready to hibernate in mid to late fall and one of their most important autumn tasks is to find food to feed their larvae and/or to store food for the winter. If you have late fall flowers blooming such as asters, let them bloom whether you invited them into your garden or not. Do not remove fall-blooming flowers (except wind-pollinated opportunist plants such as ragweed). You may notice that dandelions return in the fall – they are important sources of both nectar and pollen for bees so make sure not to pull them out.

To prepare for early to mid spring – the hungriest, most critical time for both wild and domesticated bees – take this time to plant early spring flower bulbs. You can also take this time to plant native perennial seeds such as milkweed (beloved by butterflies and bees). Most native perennials seeds need exposure to deep cold before they will germinate so planting them in November is best.


Most wild bees are solitary bees who nest in the ground or in hollow stems. Leave some bare dirt in your gardens for ground nesting bees. I mulch selectively, mostly around tender perennials, but leave bare patches of dirt throughout my gardens. Bumble bees, the only wild social bees in North America, also make their nests in the ground, often in old rodent holes. Do not fill in old rodent holes, you may accidentally kill a Queen bumblebee and her larvae.

Other solitary wild bees nest in pithy stems than can be hollowed out and, later, capped. In order to create nesting sites for these bees, I cut the flower heads off some of my perennials  but leave the dead stem standing.

In the spring it’s important to refrain from digging up your garden or cutting down the stems until the bees have emerged – usually by mid-May when the days are consistently warm. Let your neighbours glare at you, bees are more important than a neat garden. If you notice bees flying from a ground nest, do not dig it up. Instead mulch or plant around the bee nest – you can even make a little sign to warn other people in your home not to disturb the bees (especially useful if you have children who love to run around barefoot.

Carpenter bees – one of my absolute favourites because they are big, fluffy, and very gentle – nest in wood especially untreated wood in human structures. These bees cause a lot of concern for many people but there are some important things to know about them. The females do not sting unless in the process of being killed. The carpenter bees that fly around your head when you get close to their home are usually males who cannot sting. Carpenter bees rarely damage the structure they are nesting in other than making small holes. They do not create huge internal nests like termites and will not cause your deck, pergola, or shed to collapse. Let them stay as they are beautiful, fun to watch, and excellent pollinators. If you are truly concerned about carpenter bees simply paint the wood – they will probably move to untreated wood which is what they prefer.


All animals need water and bees are no exception. Since they hibernate during the winter it is only important to ensure they have a source of water until they hibernate. The easiest way to provide water to bees and other critters is to fill a saucer with rocks and water and place in your garden. I have about four of these placed throughout my garden. Once you start giving water to animals, it is important to make sure the water source doesn’t dry up as animals come to depend on it. Continue filling your saucers until temperatures fall below freezing and start filling them again when temperatures warm up in the spring.

A few questions to consider

The most important thing to do this fall and winter is to think about what it means to garden with wildlife. I want you to contemplate a few questions:

What does it mean for humans to be part of the eco-system?

How can we learn to nurture and share nature’s abundance with other animals?

How would human societies have to change if we truly saw ourselves as co-creating the Earth with other living beings and other living things?


















3 Thoughts

  1. These are very interesting and thought provoking questions! Flowers are such a crucial and beautiful part of our ecosystem. They support the lives of all pollinators that in turn support the magnificent plant diversity and most of the food we eat. Its true, urban development is a major cause of bee habitat destruction- More concrete means less natural landscapes. We need to learn to share our environment with all bee species… At least to the point that they have a safe next meal! Providing a bee with safe nectar is as easy as growing native blooming flowers without the use of harmful pesticides. love the facts about carpenter bees too! We are located in Australia and have some wonderful native bees here. Thanks for sharing your tips, and sounds like your garden would make for a happy bee oasis!


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