Bees are extremely important and responsibly for 75% of the foods we eat every day. There are more than 4,000 species of bees in North America, and about 350 in the Northeast. They include honey bees, bumble bees, mason bees, carpenter bees, sweat bees, orchard bees, and the list goes on! Some are programmed to visit only a certain species of plants while others are cosmopolitan feeders, going to a wide variety of flowers to seek out nectar and pollen. They all pollinate flowers that then produce a fruit or vegetable. Leaf crops are the exception, but it could be said that without pollination, fruiting and the resulting seed production, there would not be seed for future leaf crops. So we need bees, all kinds of bees, not just honey bees. Other insects, animals and even some birds also pollinate certain crops. Hummingbirds come to mind for one.
How do we keep our bee pollinators happy and alive to do the job? I have listed the highlights of ways we humans can assist this important tasks on which we depend.
Food for bees. Plant flowers. Trees and shrubs are important flowering plants in addition to the perennials, annuals and vegetables that we normally think of when taking bees into consideration. Trees and shrubs typically flower very early in the spring, some in late winter, providing nectar sources for the very early bees that emerge from their winter hiding places and nests. Willows and witchhazels are bloomers bees count on. Think continued blooming to feed from early season until will into the fall. Also plant en masse. Bees flying overhead are more likely to find larger groupings of plants in flower than just one or two plants spaced apart.
Types of plants that provide a heavy nectar source are best. Single flowered plants produce more nectar and pollen than plants bred for double flowers. An example is cosmos; the original single petal variety is better for bees than the flower with a double row of petals. Same goes for double petunias. Think single flowers. Plants in the mint and aster families are huge nectar producers beloved by bees. Asters and golden rod bloom late when there is not much else out. It goes without saying that native plants will be a benefit to native bees, aligned to bloom and provide sustenance at just the right time it is needed most.
The Xerces Society has a great native plant list for the northeast at the link below.
Water for bees. All life needs water. Bees do not swim, nor can they ‘stand’ on water. Bird baths are great, just keep them shallow and place a rock with the top exposed into the center of the water. This gives the bees a place to drink from without drowning. In the wild, bee drink from damp edges of streams and ponds, and wet soil. Place shallow plates of water among your plants.
Housing for bees. Honey bees can live in hives, managed by humans, but they don’t need our help. In nature, they will find a protected hole in a tree, a cavity or wall void in which to live. There are many other bee species that are not honey bees. Two thirds of these bees live in than soil. Some solitary, others in communities. Beware of soil tillage. Digging up the ground can and will disturb bee nests. Observe an area before disturbing the soil. If bees are present, if you see them entering the ground, coming and going, you have an active bee pollinator area. Bees like to live in a sunny area where the soil is warmer, and especially on the edge of woods. Dead trees and broken branches, piles of brush and undisturbed grassy areas provide protection and cover for many bee living quarters. Some bees make their homes in hollow stems of plants, others will hollow out dead twigs. As gardeners, we usually clean up these areas, but leave some as bee habitat.
Don’t use pesticides. To protect the bees, never spray any insecticide or fungicide when flowers are open and bees are present. Bees are active during daylight hours, so for growers and others that must spray as a last resort for certain pests and crops, it should be applied during the dark of morning, i.e. 4 a.m. to avoid hitting the bees and so that the pesticide dries before the bees become active. Systemic insecticides, ones that are applied to the soil then taken up by the plant, will move to all parts of the plant, including the pollen, nectar and even gutation water formed as tiny droplets expressed on leaf edges. Bees will take in the pesticide through these sources, and while it may not be enough to kill them outright, the toxins will weaken the bees and build up in the colony.