In a few short months, the sweet scent of thawing soil will have me searching under trees, along streams and in gardens for new life peeking into the frosty air. During the dark days of winter, it’s hard to imagine anyone more excited about spring’s brave first blooms.
But just below ground, creatures on a more important mission than mine will be getting ready to greet the plants, too. Mother bumblebees will emerge from leaves to start new colonies, timing their arrival for the flowering of Dutchman’s breeches and Virginia bluebells. Ground-nesting bees will dig through blankets of dirt to indulge refined tastes: Andrena erigeniae will turn to her exclusive culinary supplier, spring beauty flowers, to make pollen cakes for her babies; Habropoda labiorosa will get her groceries from blueberries, redbud trees, oaks and Carolina jessamine. Cavity-nesting bees—who’ve waited out the cold in logs and twigs—will also join the party.
As we awaken from our own kind of hibernation, many of us will walk by these animals without even noticing them. Though everywhere in the landscape, they occupy little space in the cultural mindset, much to the chagrin of scientists working to save them. If he had to pick one fact more people should know about North America’s 4,000 wild bee species, says conservation biologist Rich Hatfield of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, it would be this: “That they exist.”
Their solitary nature, hidden nests and often diminutive sizes have made most bees historically difficult to observe, even for scientists. “Go back 20 years,” says biologist Olivia Messinger Carril, coauthor of The Bees in Your Backyard, “and the number of people that studied bees could be counted on your hands and your feet, total.” The obscurity of native pollinators also stems from a disproportionate focus on a single species imported from Europe 400 years ago. “Most people, when they think about bees, they have an image that pops into their head, and that’s the honeybee,” says Hatfield.
Critical to current agricultural systems that manage hives for food crops, the domesticated honeybee dominates headlines as beekeepers struggle to stop mass die-offs blamed on disease, mites, habitat loss and pesticides. But just as hard at work in our forests, fields and gardens are mason bees, mining bees, bumblebees and others whose services have produced fruits and seeds for countless animals—including people—for millennia. They, too, are at risk, dependent on ever-shrinking habitat to accommodate lifestyles that bear little resemblance to those of their captive-raised cousins.
Instead of adding hives, which may further increase competition for floral resources and transmit disease, add habitat.
The needs of wild bees are so different that, as some experts say, raising honeybees to save pollinators is like raising chickens to help birds. Though many homeowners respond to “save a bee” campaigns by purchasing hives, the practice is unlikely to improve honeybee health and may harm other bees by increasing competition for floral resources and exacerbating the risk of disease transmission. In the turf-dominated landscapes of suburbia, native bees need all the flowers they can find.
To benefit these special creatures as well as many other animals, take these steps to enhance your backyard habitat:
Plant diverse native species and other bee favorites.
While some bees have long tongues to access tubular flowers, those with shorter tongues tend to visit shallower blooms. Many are dietary generalists, but pollen specialists rely on certain species. A succession of native blooms ensures there’s something for everyone. In my mid-Atlantic yard, that means leaving violets for their biggest fan, a mining bee known as Andrena violae, or evening primroses for the Lasioglossum oenotherae, a sweat bee they host. In the Southwest, it means nurturing cacti for Diadasia bees partial to their pollen. Across the continent, asters, goldenrods and sunflowers provide seasonal nourishment in autumn as other flowers wane. Bee experts also recommend supplementing native blooms with herbs and cottage-garden annuals attractive to bees such as hollyhocks, lavender, and zinnias.
Set up maternity wards for mother bees.
Mother bees ask for little: Most nest alone in sunny dirt patches left unmulched. Some lay eggs in stalks of goldenrod, elderberry and other plants left standing, including dead or dying trees. Bumblebees, a more social species, colonize grassy tussocks, rodent burrows and other unmowed areas, where fallen leaves also shelter overwintering queens. The less you indulge your urge to “clean up” in the garden, the more you’ll help these hard-working creatures. Let fallen leaves lie, and resist the temptation to add mulch to exposed earth. Leave last season’s leftover stalks wherever you can; if you need to prune, give bee larvae a chance by propping the twigs against a tree or scattering long pieces between plants in your garden.
Lay down your weapons.
Some pesticides contaminate pollen and nectar, and others kill on contact. Before grabbing spray bottles, observe what’s really happening. Holes in roses may be the handiwork of leafcutter bees lining nests with petals and foliage. Instead of treating such phenomena as aggressive acts, be proud that you’re helping generations of bees—and many other animals depending on the incalculable services these unsung heroes provide.
Don’t blink or you’ll miss it! Check out this video of a bee returning to her underground nest by Dr. Jim Cane of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Logan, Utah:
For further information
Specialist bees: About a third of the approximately 450 bee species native to the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern U.S. are pollen specialists, relying on blooms of plants of a certain genus or even single species. In other regions like the Southwest, that ratio could be even higher. Read more here.
Citizen science: Of the thousands of native bee species in North America, only 46 are bumblebees. But these social creatures are some of our best pollinators. At least a third are thought to be in decline, however, and one hasn’t been seen since 2006. Help these animals and the scientists who study them by joining Bumble Bee Watch, a citizen science program that teaches you how to identify bees as you document sightings in your own backyard and community.
Guidelines for gardeners: One of the photographic contributors to this article, entomologist Jim Cane, has produced helpful guidelines for those interested in creating nesting and flowering habitat. Though some of the advice is specific to Utah, much of it is universal. See Gardening and Landscaping Practices for Nesting Bees and Gardening for Native Bees in Utah and Beyond.
Field guide: With the help of The Bees in Your Backyard and its authors, I’ve already learned to identify bees so tiny they used to look more like flies or wasps to me. Mixed with detailed descriptions of anatomy and lifestyles are fascinating facts about bee behavior and natural histories.
Mini field guide: If Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees doesn’t make you fall in love with native bees, nothing will. This lavishly illustrated guide from the USDA Forest Service and Pollinator Partnership provides a gorgeous, empathetic look at everything you never knew about native bees and their lifestyles.
Planting guides: Created with more than bees in mind, these region-specific Selecting Plants for Pollinators guides from the Pollinator Partnership briefly explain why different kinds of blooms attract different species. PDFs tailored to 24 regions in the U.S. and Canada help gardeners learn how to plant for bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, hummingbirds and bats.
For more tips on working with nature in your garden, check out my new book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Wildlife Habitat, due for release from Princeton Architectural Press on April 18.
A shorter version of this article originally appeared in my Humane Backyard column in the January/February 2017 edition of All Animals magazine. A special thanks to MaLisa Spring, Megan E. Leach, Christy Stewart and Jim Cane for generously allowing the use of their spectacular photos and video.