Ahhh, spring: the leaves on trees are opening, spring flowers are blooming, birds are busy making their nests, and bees are buzzing. Gardeners start to get very excited about getting into our gardens to work the soil and plant flowers, vegetables, and herbs. Spring is the time when we get to make real our winter dreams and plans.
Spring is perhaps the most sensitive season for both wild and managed bees. When bees emerge in the spring, whether from their ground nest, their hollow stem, or their hive, they are hungry and in search of food. Bees are one of the most important allies that humans have, helping to pollinate about 30% of our regularly consumed food crops and about 90% of all flowering plants (including most trees). There are a few simple ways that we, in turn, can be allies to them, helping to co-create gardens that are full of abundance, diversity, and life. This co-creation begins in the spring.
Here are five simple things you can do to co-create your garden with bees this spring:
- Be patient about working the soil in your garden. Many native bees, including bumble bees, are ground-dwellers. They don’t necessarily emerge when the warm weather arrives – many bee species need consistently warm weather before they will emerge. As an advocate of no-till gardening, I recommend that gardeners not till or dig up their gardens for many reasons. However, it is especially important to not till or dig-up gardens until about mid-May in order to give native bees time to emerge. After mid-May, feed your soil some organic matter and work it in gently, being careful not to disturb the homes of bees (lookout for small round holes in the soil and rodent nests – which may serve as bumble bee homes). When planting seeds and seedlings, only work the soil needed to do your planting. Also be patient about clearing away dead stems – they may be the winter home of native bees. Instead leave them in an upright bundle until mid-May.
- Choose organic, open pollinated seeds and seedlings. The use of any pesticide may harm bees but it is especially important to avoid seeds and seedlings that may have been inoculated with neonicotinoid pesticides. This class of pesticides has been shown in multiple peer-reviewed scientific studies to harm both wild and managed bees and are both persistent and systemic. It is hard to find information about how widespread neonicotinoids are in the nursery and seed growing industries. The best way to avoid pesticides on your seeds and seedlings is to buy organic. Open-pollinated seeds and seedlings tend to have more nectar and pollen as compared to hybrid varieties which make them more attractive to all kinds of pollinators – plus you can collect and replant the seeds (or share them).
- Incorporate native plants into your garden plan. While many bee species are generalists and will pollinate a wide variety of plants, several scientific studies have demonstrated that some native bee species prefer native plants. Native plants have been shown in several studies to increase the abundance of bees that visit gardens. As an added bonus, you might also find you have a higher number of butterflies visiting your backyard.
- Consider reducing your lawn. Lawns are deserts for bees, providing little food or habitat. Backyards with little lawn cover and a wide diversity of plants including vegetables, herbs, flowers, and native plants are associated with an abundance of bees and richness in terms of bee species. Create new garden beds and consider seeding your lawn with white clover to add a food source for generalist bees.
- Add a water source to your backyard. Bees, like all animals, need water. Put out a few saucers with rocks and fill with water. Make sure to keep it filled as bees will start to rely on it a source of water on a daily basis.
These five simple actions seem small but they have a big impact on bee populations in cities. Love the bees and they will love you – giving you lots of delicious food to eat – or more flowers to enjoy. A garden full of buzzing bees is truly a joyful and peaceful oasis for you and for bees.
Excellent source for scholarly bee information:
Hall, D. M., Camilo, G. R., Tonietto, R. K., Ollerton, J., Ahrné, K., Arduser, M…Threlfall, C. G. (2017), The city as a refuge for insect pollinators. Conservation Biology, 31: 24–29