How to Really Save the Bees

A metallic green bee, identified by researcher Christy Stewart as Agapostemon virescens, emerges from a ground nest in her Wisconsin backyard. Most of North America’s 4,000 or so native bee species raise their young underground. Others are largely cavity-nesters, laying eggs in wood, twigs, and other materials. (Photo above by Christy Stewart. Featured image, top, by Megan E. Leach)

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.”

Image of Andrena erigeniae on spring beauty
Andrena erigeniae, a kind of mining bee, is a pollen specialist on the flowers of spring beauties (Claytonia virginica). (Photo by MaLisa Spring)
Image of bee nests by MaLisa Spring
Think these are anthills? Think again. They are the nests of native mother bees. (Photo by MaLisa Spring)
Image of bee emerging from ground nest
Unmulched areas near plants can provide ideal nesting habitat for many ground-nesting bees. (Photo by MaLisa Spring)

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.

Image of honeybee on frost aster
Honeybees are important pollinators and deserve our help, but knowledge of their plight has tended to obscure the needs of the many other bees who don’t live in hives. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

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.

Image of squash bees by Megan Leach
Squash bees, or bees in the Peponapis genus, depend on squash flowers and can pollinate them more effectively than honeybees. (Photo by Megan E. Leach)
Image of Melissodes agilis on sunflower
Melissodes agilis visits the Utah backyard of USDA scientist Jim Cane. The species specializes on pollen of plants in the aster family, including sunflowers, where gardeners are most likely to see them. (Photo by Jim Cane)

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.
The telltale signs of mother leafcutter bees building their nests appeared on my wild grapevine leaves in Maryland  last summer. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

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 HumImage of Humane Gardener book coverane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Wildlife Habitat.

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 sharing their spectacular photos and video.


45 thoughts on “How to Really Save the Bees”

      1. My sister treated me to a relaxing spa treatment in Hot Springs last spring and I had a wonderful time. Unfortunately my sister had an awful time during her massage because the lady in the next room from her was talking bees-bees bees. Lol yep the massuese and I were having a wonderful time talking bees.
        So I loved reading your article today.
        And then I see you have written and published a book. I would ♡ to buy a signed copy please !

        1. Aw, how fantastic – sounds like a perfect day to me! Thank you for reading the piece, and I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I’ll be very happy to sign a copy for you when the book is out!

      2. I Love the good stuff , info and knowledge !!! , But , what about big corp poison, chemtrails, monsanto, rothchild , bilderburg. These and other false UN supported groups are killing us rather than helping us. They are the earth death manipulators. Where is the info to fight back against them and what they are doing to us. Take the fight to the source. Otherwise there will be no Buzz. But as far as the beauty and wonder and the right kind of care in/if
        a healthy world of our bees -Loved it.

        1. Hi John, thank you! I’ve written about that a bit too — both here: … and here (this one as a way to implement alternatives to glyphosate): My goal is to help homeowners cultivate differently, since so much land is under our control that could be put to better use for wildlife. So I tend to place my biggest focus on what gardeners can do and why, and that definitely does include ceasing the use of pesticides.

  1. Thank you so much! A problem in urban areas is the obsession with perfect lawns and flowerbeds. These require pesticides, mowing, etc. You can be fined for leaving an area natural. Planting bushes and leaving the underbrush undisturbed helps.

    1. Thanks, Gail! Yeah, that can be tough. As you say, leaving the unnatural areas in a hidden spot behind some bushes and such can help keep piece with the community and neighbors. Also, another good tip I picked up from someone in Ohio I’m profiling: She found out her neighbors’ favorite plant and added them all along the borders of her property. 🙂

  2. Thanks, Nancy! Great article. You know, it really takes pressure off us to not have visually perfect gardens. Now we can boast that our plants are nibbled upon for the health and beauty of our planet. Thanks for keeping us informed. Enjoyed your little video of bee returning home!

    1. Thanks, Melinda! Yes, celebrate the holes in your leaves! 🙂 The video is by a scientist in Utah, but he has given me great tips for trying to get better images of my own of ground-nesters. Can’t wait to try it this summer!!

  3. As a keeper of feral caught honey bees, I always emphasize in my presentations to the public that one of the most simple ways they can support diverse agriculture, soil protecting agriculture and avoid the fossil fuel chemical intensive Ag model is to vote with your dollars—buy organic produce. In general, these growers have ALL pollinators more in their purview as important to ecosystem supported models. This aspect of how we all choose to eat is fundamental and rarely mentioned when discussing pollinator declines

    1. Hi Susan. As a reader of the Humane Gardener blogs, I’d like to say “Thank you” to you for your input re: buying organic. Every decision that each of us makes daily for what to do — and what not to do — in all aspects of our daily consumption (and production and disposal) does make a difference, because everything in the web of life on our planet truly is connected.

    2. Thanks, Susan – that’s a very good point, and a way to help beyond just your own backyard. Personally I eat organic not so much for my own health but because it’s likely to be less harmful to wildlife large and small.

  4. This is a great post. I’m always happy to see people championing our glorious native bees. I’ve got a book of stories about native bees coming out at Timber Press in 2018. I’m really looking forward to checking out your book when it comes out. Good luck!

  5. Thank you! This has always been a “periphetal” issue of concern for me (something I care about, but have taken little personal action with regard to), but this page has inspired me to devote some time this spring to improving native bee habitat not just in my own yard but encouraging others to do so as well. For the bees!

  6. Dear Ms. Lawson,
    I have been following the plight of all bees in general for several years now. I recently read that there have now been several species added to the endangered species list. This saddens me so much. I love this article and that you have written a book soon to released. The release date excited me because it is on my birthday! I would love To have a signed copy. Please let me know how it can get one? Thank you so much for this knowledge and insight into nature of the gems in our world.
    Sincerly, Shawna

    1. Thanks so much for your note and excitement about bees and my book, Shawna! I’ll send you an email about getting you a signed copy – it makes me happy that the release date coincides with your birthday!

  7. Soil, not dirt. Don’t insult the soil by calling it dirt. Soil is alive and provides life. Dirt is what’s on the floor and under your fingernails.

    1. Thanks, Susan – your point is well-taken. Usually I use the term “soil,” for the reason you express. In this case I intentionally described it as a bare patch of “dirt” to conjure a certain image — that of the thin-looking, sandier stuff that so many of these little bees prefer. Homeowners would often look at an area like that and think it’s “weedy” and cover it with mulch or a bag of topsoil and grass seed. I appreciate your note, though, and will think about different ways to describe it next time.

  8. Wow. Thank you SO MUCH for this article, I learned a lot. I thought most of the holes in the ground were ants (or earth worms) will look much closer this summer. We had a nest of bumblebees in the pink insulation on our porch when I was a kid, mom just told us if we didn’t hurt them they wouldn’t hurt us. I see fewer bumble bees than when I was young, it worries me. I am trying to teach my grandkids not to have a freak out attack whenever they see bees (or any insect, for that matter). Fear is ou biggest enemy, I think. What we don’t understand we are more likely to destroy.

    1. Hi Mary, thank you for reading – I’m so glad you find it helpful! And I, too, use to think those were all ant hills. I totally agree that unfounded fear is the problem, and fear is also heavily marketed by companies who profit off scaring people into spraying and tearing nature down.

  9. I would be interested to know what data can I read to support your claim that honey bees compete with native bees for floral resources, or is that an assumption?

    1. Hi Marsha,

      Thanks for your question. Concerns about competition for limited resources are widespread among scientists, particularly in areas with natural habitat — but also in developments that border natural habitat. It’s sometimes difficult to do controlled experiments among wild populations, but even so, there is evidence of negative effects in studies from here and around the world. Here is a sampling:

      From Dave Goulson of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and author of A Buzz in the Meadow and a Sting in the Tale:

      From Claremont McKenna College, a study of wild populations in coastal California:
      … and another near hives:

      From German researchers, on red mason bees and introduced honeybees:

      From the National Academies, under “interspecific competition between bees,” pp. 90-93, which summarizes some of the research:

      Hope that helps. Thanks!

  10. I’ve done articles on bees for my paper, The Delmarva Farmer, and learned a lot of things I hadn’t really considered or thought about.. One thing the bee keepers I interviewed were very specific about was the facts of how we try to keep our landscapes neat and free of what many consider weeds, but in reality, are necessary for the abundance of our world, and in the process, we destroy much bee habitat. I started thinking about how dandelions and many others we call weeds, are actually quite pretty, even beautiful. Those not involved in food production need to be re-taught in school how important some things are to bees survival and in the process, to ours.

    1. Hi Caryl, yes!! I totally agree with the beekeeper you interviewed. So many of these flowers that we strip away or malign as weeds, simply because we did not plant them or they don’t fit our aesthetic expectations, are helpful to all bees — natives and honies both. If we had more of everything, there would be a lot more to go around for sure. That’s great that you are writing about it for your local paper — so many people just don’t realize this and would definitely make a change if they knew.

  11. Just having the flowers is not enough for the insects. You must also create a helpful sustainable environment for them to continue their life cycles. This includes using leaves as your mulch, dead logs and branches to use as nests for insects. And of course to use a diverse palette of native plants for canopy trees, understory trees, shrubs and perennials/annuals instead of lawn.

    1. Thanks, Mark – absolutely! I tried to emphasize that in this article (see the “set up maternity wards” section) as well as in many other pieces on my site. You are right that the way we cultivate (and don’t cultivate) is just as important as what we plant.

  12. Great article! I’m glad to see it shared so much by my fb friends. Not to be a nit-picker, but the photo of the “squash bee” is clearly in a Nasturtium flower, not a squash flower.

    I’ll be keeping my yard as messy as possible this year!

    1. Thanks, Julia – good eye! Not nitpicky at all — I really appreciate the correction, and this gave me an opportunity to add a photo that is clearly a squash image from the same series by a scientist in Maine. (She took so many wonderful ones, and it would make sense that nasturtium would be mixed in, since people mix nasturtium into squash patches.) The flowers looked so similar, but in looking at them again I can see what you mean. Thanks again! 🙂

  13. I fully agree Nancy. I gave a TEDx talk on the same idea, using parking lots as a bench mark for habitat dispersal and showing that even parking lots can contribute positively to pollinator populations. Thanks for all your work to get the word out on this idea!

    Here is a link to the talk!

    1. Thanks, Danielle! I’m familiar with your work because I watched a recording of your Biophilic Cities webinar! I thought the idea of creating contiguous habitat in parking lots was brilliant — and your mapping of Houston is such a compelling way to illustrate the problem bees face when they can’t fly far enough. It’s exciting to hear from you because I’d made notes and questions to prep for an interview with you later, since my book and this magazine column were already going to print by that point. In addition to always wanting to write more about bees, I’d like to bring this parking lot concept to my local officials and wanted to see if you have any model cities for that yet or any advice. I will catch up offline! 🙂

  14. Do you know if cinnamon is harmful to bees? I’d like to use a water/cinnamon oil mixture on my Apple trees to see if it will help reduce fungi causing scab. Thank you for any information.

    1. No it is not. Beekeepers will actually sprinkle cinnamon on the ground around their hives to repel ants. You should be fine to use.

  15. About ten years ago, we discovered miner bees on a dry hill in our side yard. We enjoy watching them every Spring when they fly over their nest holes in the warm sun.

    1. Hi Cindy! How fun! That sounds like perfect habitat for them. I’m thinking of trying out some butterfly binoculars to try to see them closer up with something other than my camera.

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