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Bee garden how-to: the Complete Guide

bee garden how-to

Let’s face it, there’s probably a long list of bugs that you’d prefer not to keep around, but bees shouldn’t be one of them! Bees are friendly and helpful, and planting a bee garden is a great way to help them out in return.

bee on flower

To grow a bee garden, make sure to include a wide variety of flowering plants that will bloom in succession throughout the year. Avoid flowers that don’t produce much pollen, and leave some space uncultivated for solitary bees. To take the extra step, provide the bees with water and shelter.

Enough talk, let’s get bzzzy.

Why Plant a Bee Garden?

Maybe you haven’t heard, but the bees are having a hard time. Since 2006, the rate of honey bee colony loss has more-than doubled, reaching up to 30%. And it isn’t just the honey bees--the rusty patched bumble bee made headlines when the US Fish and Wildlife Service added it to the list of endangered species.

Birds, beetles, bats, and butterflies are some of the most common pollinators, but the greatest of all is the bee. They keep up plant biodiversity and are responsible for about one-third of the world’s food supply.

And the sad truth is that, along with some more complicated factors like parasites and pathogens, we’re the ones hurting bees. Pesticides, fungicides, herbicides--they’re causing damage, and we’re dealing it out.

The point is, bees are a big deal! And with all the benefits they give us, the least we could do is try to keep them from dying out.

Plus, along with the global benefit, bees can greatly enhance individual gardens--your garden. From flowering plants to vegetables and even nuts, bees will only help out.

The best thing that you can do to help these little guys out is create a place where they can have access to everything they need: food, water, and shelter. It’s a short and easy list, and growing a bee garden can fulfill all of those necessities in a fun, lovely way.

Bees vs. wasps, & staying safe with your bzzzy friends

Finally, a quick warning. Unlike hell-bound wasps or ants, bees don’t tend to be naturally aggressive. Honey bees especially are known for their domesticity. Almost all of the time, bees are more focused on working their nine-to-five job than on maliciously stinging the innocent.

However, if you have children or animals that will probably be playing or running around in this area, you might not want to be inviting bees. Not every kind of bee lives in a clearly visible colony--many live underground. While bees are awesome, bee stings are not, so take the necessary precautions.

Types of Bees

Honey Bees

We’re all familiar with the honey bee. They live in fantastically run colonies where everybody has a job to get done, and they give us sweet golden honey and beeswax.

In these social hives, each individual bee falls into one of three categories: workers, drones, or the queen.

Worker bees

The vast majority of bees in a colony are workers. This caste is made exclusively of females (go girls), and have a number of key responsibilities. If reared in the spring or early summer, worker bees tend to live no more than about six weeks, but can survive longer if hatched in the fall. They begin their short lives in the hive, only leaving after about two weeks.

From then on, worker bees are out foraging for all the pollen and nectar that needs to be brought back home. They form honeycombs, transform the nectar into honey, and they make more food for the queen and the little ones.

Basically, whatever needs to be done, the worker bees will take care of it. Queen needs to keep warm during those harsh months of winter? The workers will huddle around her. Trash and debris in the hive? Worker bees will get it out. Intruders trying to break into the colony? Worker bees are on the defensive. Baby bees are hatching? Worker bees are going to raise them.

It’s a tough job and noble life for a worker bee in the colony.

Male honeybees

Then there are the male honey bees, the drones. These are usually formed from eggs that went unfertilized. Though there are much fewer drones than workers in a typical colony, they are clearly bigger than the females.

And, while the workers do all the heavy lifting around the colony, drones have a singular role: fertilization of the queen. A normal day as a drone involves eating (they tend to eat honey in the hive), resting, and monitoring the mating sites.  

male bee

The queen

Last, but certainly not least, the queen bee. Her job is to lay eggs, being that she is the only reproductive female in the colony.

The queen bee is crucial to the colony. Queen bees can live up to five years, and can produce as much as 2000 eggs a day.

The huge mass of female bees has no problem working for the queen, either; in fact, if they notice an absence of the queen’s pheromones, which would only happen if the queen has been removed from the colony, the workers panic and try to bring up a new queen from the larvae ASAP.

With so much to do, beehives are like the New York of nature, bustling with activity. Everybody has to play their part.

Native Bees

Of course, we’re all familiar with honey bees, but how often do you think about the other types? Probably not very much, despite the thousands of different species that are spread over North America.

Unlike honey bees, native bees aren’t social, they don’t live in colonies. Instead, these solitary little bugs build nests in their various ways. Most species of native bees fall into the category of miners, hole-nesters, or carpenters.

As you can guess from the name, miners (Andrenidae family) dig and make their nests underground. These burrows can extend deeper than a foot, which is super impressive work for a lone female bee. At the ends of the tunnel’s branches, the bee makes small units, called brood cells, which is like a nursery for the larvae.

Another obvious name, hole-nesters (Megachilidae family) seek out small holes in trees or rocks, then they get to decorating. Mason bees, for example, use mud to make walls between the brood cells and to seal the entrance. Leafcutter bees do a similar thing with--you guessed it--leaves.

But carpenters, from the family Apidae, make their own homes, occasionally at the cost of your shed or garage. Their jaws are very strong, and they use them to make tunnels in soft or dead wood. Like in the other cases, the bee then gets to work making brood cells.

After the carpenter bee has the hole cleared out for the egg, she adds pollen and then seals each cell up with regurgitated wood pulp. They really take decoration to the next level.

Cool Bee Facts

You might think that you know all about these little insects, but let me tell you, there’s a whole crazy, secret life that bees are living right under our noses.

Hot bee balls

Japanese honeybees have learned an interesting way to counter-attack giant hornets--they cook ‘em.

Bees’ stingers aren’t enough against this thing--I mean, it’s name is literally giant hornet--so they had to come up with a new way to defend themselves. To do so, they swarm around the hornets and start vibrating their muscle fibers.

In effect, the bees create so much heat that the hornet is cooked at 117°F. Take that, giant hornet.

Suspended animation

Without a hive to get back to before curfew, sometimes solitary bees stay out too late. To make it through the night, they’ve developed a very interesting ability, a state that looks a lot like suspended animation.

Many solitary bees will rest at night by clamping onto vegetation, and entering this state of suspended animation. Only when the sun rises and warms everything up will the bees go back to normal and be able to fly around again.

Bees can get drunk

Of course, not everything that bees do stems from an evolutionary adaptation. They like to party, too.

All the food that bees eat comes from plants, they eat the nectar and pollen. And nectar is really just water and sugar. What else is pretty much just water and sugar? That’s right: booze.

Yeast ferment it to make it into alcohol. And, as it turns out, bees will drink 100% proof, pure ethanol. They stumble-fly, run into stuff, and occasionally get lost. At the entrance to a hive, worker bees will prevent drunk bees from entering, like bouncers.

Which Plants to Grow for a Bee Garden

Pretty much wherever there are lots of plants, there will be some bees. But there are certain plants that will be more attractive, especially to native bees.

flowers to attract bees

Flowers for attracting bees

Bees depend heavily on the presence of flowers to get pollen and nectar. Planting single flowers instead of double flowers, making sure that there are flowers in bloom consecutively, and giving preference to native flowers are all ways to make things easier for the bees.

Single flowers, like daisies and magnolias, by definition, have around 4-8 petals, whereas double flowers, like roses, geraniums, and marigolds, have much more. Despite the beauty of those full-blown doubles, it’s easier for a bee to access the pollen and nectar in singles.

And even though the season changes, a bee’s need for food does not. You’ll probably not be able to keep most of the flowers alive through the winter, but you do want to make sure that there are flowers blooming from early spring to the end of fall.

For instance, you could plant snowdrops and tulips, which will bloom in the spring. Then daisies and petunias to get the bees through the summer, and then aster and goldenrods to extend into fall.

And don’t forget that there are very likely some species of bee native to where you live. Sometimes they specialize in the flowers that are also native to the area, so add in some hometown flowers too.

Color also plays a role in getting the bees’ attention, to some extent. It’s been seen that yellow, purple, and blue flowers are the most attractive.

Lastly, consider throwing some perennials into the mix. Mint, lavender, thyme, and bee balm are all good for attracting bees, and will sustain them through winter.

Shrubs & Trees

Bees love regular old flowers! But that doesn’t mean they don’t also love shrubs and trees--especially the ones that also have flowers. Bees really can’t get enough of those sweet, sweet flowers.

Plus, adding in some trees can also give the carpenters and hole-nesters a good place to live, so it’s like two bees with one stone (not in a killing way).

Good shrubs for bees: rose of Sharon, buttonbush, and black chokeberry.

Good trees for bees: oaks, magnolias, and just about every fruit tree.

Getting Your Bee Garden Started

There are a few things to do before planting the multitudes of flowers, shrubs, trees, and anything else. When you build something new, first you have to tear down the old.

Removing Grass

If you have a lot of grass in the area where you plan to grow your bee garden, you’ll need to mow it as short as possible. Since some of the bee species that you’ll want to attract will need to build tunnels in the soil, you should do what you can to expose patches.

There are a few options you could follow for removing the remaining grass. You could use cardboard to smother the grass--a process called sheet mulching.

Solarization is another good option. For this method, you cover the area with clear plastic, making sure that the edges are secure. After about four weeks (assuming you’re getting plenty of sunlight) of the heat getting trapped under the plastic, you’re done. It’s like a grass death-ray, but safe.

You might have noticed that there was no mention of any harsh chemicals, like glyphosate. AVOID.

Aerating

Aerating the lawn isn’t entirely necessary, but since you’re going to be planting a pretty dense garden, it’d be a good idea. Don’t shy away from the work! That’s what a bee would say if it could talk.

It’s best to aerate your lawn the day after you get a fair amount of rain, or you can water it yourself if you don’t feel like waiting for nature to help out.

There are a few kinds of high-tech machines you could use to aerate the lawn, but you could also do it by hand with a shovel. Simply dig up soil and make sure it’s not super compact or sticking together. Add in a fair amount of compost.

Planting

Now, the only thing left to do is start planting seeds! Remember to leave some areas more or less bare, so the bees can dig their nests underground.

If you are including trees or shrubs, start with those. They’ll serve as a ground layer. Afterwards, add the grasses, flowers, and perennials you’ve chosen. It’s important to have a wide variety.

Maintenance

Generally speaking, bee gardens don’t need to be very manicured and organized. They’re mostly for the benefit of the bees, and the bees don’t mind having weeds around.

That being said, it doesn’t mean that your garden has to or should be wild and crazy. Your bee garden is yours. If you don’t want a bunch of weeds, or you see that they are starting to negatively affect the other plants, you can get rid of them.

It is recommended to let the lawn grow higher than you regularly would. In this case, the accepted height for keeping grass is about four inches, mowing it when it reaches about six.

For weeds, don’t use any herbicides, which will harm the weeds at the cost of also harming all the plants you want and worked hard to grow. If there are too many weeds, you’ll have to break out the hand tools to remove them.

Maintaining your bee garden shouldn’t be too much of a chore, but, when you do it, you’ll have to be careful. It wouldn’t be very hospitable to mow right over the home of the ground-dwelling bees. Proceed with caution.

The Bees’ Needs

Bees only need the basics: food, water, shelter. They’ll get food from the lovely flowers you plant, and you can help them out with a cozy home and access to water if you want.

bee drinking water

Water

When it comes to providing water for the bees, you can do something simple or you can go a little extra, it’s entirely up to you.

The easiest and simplest thing to do--though still very helpful and highly appreciated by the bees--would be to place some pebbles in a dish and then fill it with water, and leave it out in the garden.

It doesn’t take much water to drown bees, which is why you should add the pebbles. That way, the insects have a landing zone. Just remember to keep good water in the dish. Check on it every few days, and occasionally dump it out and refill it to keep it clean.

If you wanted to go a little bigger, you could add a full-on fountain or bird bath. If you choose to do this, remember to still add in some way for the bees to land.

Also, if you already have a sprinkler system, the bees will drink from there. As long as it runs consistently, you wouldn’t even need to get them anything more--but it can’t hurt.

Shelter

There are also a bunch of different ways to provide shelter for the bees. You can add bee houses (they’re like birdhouses but have the materials that bees need--and they look cooler), nest boxes, etc.

If you choose to put up bee houses, keep them in an area where they won’t be bothered by humans, too much rain, or too much sun. Shady, covered areas are best. Leafcutters especially will appreciate having a nest box or bee house.

Giving the bees a good shelter doesn’t have to mean giving them a house. You can also help by just leaving wild patches in the garden, soil exposed, and having some trees or other wooden material for them to dwell in.

Things to Avoid

Hybrids

Hybrid plants come in all shapes, sizes, and color, so you might be tempted to throw some of these into your bee garden, but it’s best to avoid them.

That’s because a hybrid, made from the cross-pollination of two different plant varieties, often can't produce viable seeds or very much pollen.

They’re just not all that helpful, so you shouldn’t let them take up valuable real estate. It takes a lot of effort for bees to fly from flower to flower. Don’t let hybrids trick them into exerting effort for no reason.

Harsh Chemicals

The most commonly used weed killer, glyphosate, has turned out to be pretty harmful to bees. When they come into contact with it, the chemicals disrupt their digestive system. In many cases, the bees eventually stop being able to fully process food and effectively starve.

Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides--all those harsh chemicals that are used to kill something in a garden--they’ll hurt the bees, too. Sometimes even the organic ones will hurt them, so you have to be particular about what you introduce to the garden.

If you have a bee garden, then you shouldn’t be too worried about having some other insects or creepy-crawlies hanging out. Pests that might actually cause damage to the plants will almost certainly be taken care of by the good bugs, like ladybugs and praying mantises.

And if you see any signs of plant disease, unfortunately, you’ll have to get your hands dirty and get rid of it yourself. Spraying a bunch of chemicals that are toxic to bees is a quick way to turn your bee garden into a bee cemetery.

Finally, fertilize as needed, but only use organic fertilizers.

Tips & Tricks

Here, we’ll summarize and add in a few key ways to make your bee garden a success.

Keep it diverse

The best bee garden includes a wide range of plant types. Trees can provide some bees with a home, perennials help them get through winter, and regular flowers are how they get their main source of food.

But it’s important to have diversity even in the types of flowers. Make sure you have a bunch of different colors, especially blues, whites, yellows, and purples.

And, since different bee species have different preferences and tongue lengths, you should also strive for variety in the shapes of the flowers. Possibly the most important thing is to choose the plants that have high contents of nectar.

Let it get a little wild

For a bee garden, it really doesn’t need to be super manicured. It doesn’t have to be messy or overcrowded, but there should at least be some spots left alone. That’s where the ground-dwelling bees will thrive.

There might also be some bees living in the hollowed stems on shrubs. For that reason--particularly over winter--don’t cut away the stems on shrubs or trees.

Give the bees everything they need

Since you’re already hoping to create a good home for the bees, you might as well go all the way. They’ll get the food they need from the yummy plants in your garden. Adding some water in a dish and potentially a bee house is next-level.

Watch out for invasive species

You might not realize it at first, but some plants that are great for bees in one region can be invasive in another. Variety is good, unless it’s going to cause a whole new set of problems.

Of course, you don’t have to include only native plants, but it’s worth noting too that native bees will likely be adapted to the native flowers. So, keep a healthy dose of the local wildflowers in addition to any non-native (and non-invasive) plants you want.

Not Enough Space? No Problem!

Bees are really small! They don’t need a ton of space or even a ton of food. Make the most of whatever space you have!

If your yard is small, take up all the space you can. Even with a limited amount of space, you can still grow some lovely perennials and other flowers.

If you live in an apartment and have a balcony, you can use hanging pots and window boxes. Flowering vines are a great way to take up vertical space.

And even with a limited area, you can still throw in a bee house and some water. The amount of space you have isn’t all that matters--the important thing is that you’re giving bees a chance to get some much-needed food and an environment where they’re welcome.

bees

Related Questions

What plants do bees like best?

The best plants for bees are the flowers that have plenty of pollen and nectar, usually single flowers. Some examples are lilacs, lavender, sunflowers, and snowdrops.

Plants that attract bees

Bees are most attracted to blue, purple, white, and yellow flowers. Most bees will tend to fly toward flowers that don’t have very deep blossoms. The bees native to a particular area are often attracted to the native flowers.

When should you plant a bee garden?

For a bee garden, you want to maintain some diversity in the blooming period of the flowers. Plant flowers that will bloom in the early spring, such as pansies and snowdrops, then plant lavender and bee balm to bloom in the summertime, and then plant borage and goldenrods so they’ll be ready to bloom in the fall.

About the author

Greg Volente

Greg Volente holds a Naturalist Certificate from the Morton Arboretum, and worked for The Nature Conservancy leading environmental education programs and doing natural areas restoration. Besides gardening, he's an avid wildflower enthusiast, and loves botanizing, hiking, and backpacking.