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April 13, 2011

How to “Friend” Your Native Bees

Got Bees? If you don’t, here’s how (and why) to get some!

  • Home-grown hero: This two-spotted bumble bee (Bombus bimaculatus) is native to east of the Rockies and northward into Canada. Debra Firmani

  • Helpful alien: The familiar honey bee is actually foreign to North America. Marcus Beard

Bees are nature’s most important and efficient pollinators.

Although bees may sting if they feel threatened near their nests the majority of North America’s 4,000 native bee species probably won't sting you under normal circumstances

So get to know your native bees—and learn how to bee-friend them.

Native and imported bees

Why bees are important

What's making their life difficult

What you can do to help bees 

Native and imported bees

Honeybees were imported to North America by Europeans in 1622 to pollinate imported crops and to produce beeswax and honey. You may see escaped honeybees pollinating your non-native plants, but most honeybees in North America are kept in commercially managed colonies that are transported around the country for crop pollination. It is native bee species that need help, and we make a difference by planting the native plants and flowers that they have evolved to pollinate in our backyards.

Three native bees that particularly need help are the rusty-patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis), the yellow-banded bumblebee (Bombus terricola), and the Western bumblebee (Bombus occidentalis). These three have become rare or absent throughout much or all of their previous ranges in only ten years. Scientists are seeking to learn why the bees are disappearing. Meanwhile, creating bee-friendly habitat in your backyard is the best way to help

Why bees are important

On vast farms and in family gardens, bees move large amounts of pollen between plants, pollinating flowers, fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Females take pollen back to the nest as larvae food, but pollen grains also collect on their body hairs, brushing off along the way as they visit hundreds, even thousands, of plants on each foray.

  • About half of the world’s plant species depend upon animals for pollination, and bees are considered the most efficient of pollinators. 
  • Bees help plants produce the fruits and seeds that about 25 percent of birds and many mammals depend upon for food. Over 100 crops we use in the United States require pollination.
  • Bees improve habitat for other wildlife by keeping plant communities healthy. Bees that tunnel to make ground nests help mix nutrients and water into the soil, and by supporting plant growth, bees help prevent erosion, keeping creeks healthy for aquatic life

What's making life difficult for bees?

Native bees are declining for a host of reasons:

  • Loss and fragmentation of meadow and prairie habitat.
  • The influx of invasive plants that crowd out native species.
  • Mowing and trimming equipment that removes vegetation formerly left natural.
  • Non-selective herbicides that kill native plants.
  • Off-road vehicles that damage sandy dune habitat.
  • Pesticide poisoning (from drinking contaminated nectar or from absorbing toxins through their exoskeleton).
  • Exposure to new diseases from escaped commercial bees. 

Build a bee abode »

What you can do to help bees

Even a small backyard can provide safe, healthy habitat for bees so they can pollinate the flowers, crops, and trees that support life on earth.

Create a custom bee garden with wildflowers native specifically to your area:

  • Choose native wildflowers with blossoms of varying sizes and shapes in bee-friendly colors (blue, purple, violet, white, and yellow), and select plants with varied bloom times to support different bee species.
  • Plant in 3- to 4-foot-wide color blocks of the same species.
  • Keep your garden pesticide-free. 
  • Mow meadow areas only once each year, when flowers are dead or dormant, and mow in a patch pattern, alternating the areas mowed each year.
  • Mow lawn areas with a high blade setting so native violets and clover can flourish.
  • Provide overwintering habitat for bees by allowing dead stems to stand in your gardens until plants begin to grow again in spring.

You can also provide nesting and egg-laying habitat for bees:

  • Leave an area of bare dirt where ground-nesting bees can tunnel.
  • Provide stem bundles of bamboo, teasel, or common reed as shelter for wood-nesting bees (mount the bundles firmly, facing the morning sun and sheltered from wind and rain under the eaves of a house or shed, and make fresh stem bundles each year).
  • Create the nooks and crannies favored by cavity-nesting bees with an easy do-it-yourself project—a bee block.

Create an abundance of natural beauty in your backyard

Plant native wildflowers and create a Humane Backyard! Contact your local cooperative extension office, state or local native plant society, or native plant nurseries.

Find out more

The Xerces Society
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center
Contact the USDA for a comprehensive list of cooperative extension offices

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