What’s the Buzz?

How to attract beneficial bees to your garden

Photography by Emily Clay

It has been said that if bees disappeared from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years left to live. Although this is probably not true, man is heavily dependent on bees for the pollination of many of our favorite fruits and vegetables such as apples, blueberries, strawberries, pears, watermelon and citrus fruits. Without bees our diets would have less variety and our gardens would be less diverse. Worldwide, the honeybee population is in decline. Here are some easy and practical ways to protect and attract bees to your home landscapes — every little bit helps. 


Your Garden 

As you plan ways to keep bees at your home garden, consider diversity. Diversity is a crucial requirement in creating a bee-friendly and bee-abundant landscape, whether it is a vegetable garden or a flower garden. It’s a good idea to mix the two –– with plants that are in bloom from early spring to very late fall so the bees will have abundant nutrition during the growing season. It is also important to leave a small patch of bare soil near the growing area. Most native bees are ground nesters so leave a small area with no mulch so the bees can build themselves a safe, secure home.

Pesticides and bees don’t mix. Try organic methods for fighting insects. Bees are insects, so they are extremely susceptible to pesticides. Crop rotation in the vegetable garden is one effective way to battle insects. For example, plant tomatoes in a different spot each season. Tomatoes are caviar to grubs and will attract them, so if you plant your tomatoes in a different spot each year, the grubs will not build up in one specific area.

 The best fertilizer for a garden is the farmer’s footsteps so stroll through your garden slowly every day if you can. Look for insects and pick them off the plants or use a spray nozzle at the end of your hose and blast them off with water. This method has so many benefits: you get to spend lovely time in the garden, pesticides are not being applied and your plants get water as well as getting rid of the bugs. If your garden is not too big or extensive, this really is a very reasonable approach. Try it!

Attracting birds, frogs and other predators to your garden by adding a birdbath or pond works well in reducing harmful insects. If you notice that the birdbath is too deep for the bees to enjoy it, put a large round stone in the middle to give the bees a perch that they can drink from. If you don’t have an extensive garden and only have a small deck or terrace to garden, add a small saucer of water with pebbles. This will suffice as a perfect water source for the bees. 

Remember that gorgeous photograph of the hawk sitting on the edge of the birdbath in the July/August 2015 issue of Columbia Metropolitan Magazine? Birds are attracted to the water and can nibble on a few insects in and out of the garden. Frogs will also be attracted to the water –– and they, too, can devour a few garden pests as they enjoy a cool drink of water. Watch carefully and see which birds and frogs find your water supply. Pay attention and see what insects they eat while they are in view.


Which Bees? 

When we think of bees in the garden, we usually visualize the European honeybee. These were imported into our country in the 1600s and have thrived up until now. There are more than 4,000 other species of bees that are native to the United States as well as other wasps and pollinating flies. Who knew there was such a thing as a pollinating fly? Because there is such a wide variety of bees, it makes it that much more important to have a diverse and native selection of plants in the garden and landscape. Variety is truly the spice of life in the garden.


Indigenous Inspiration

One very talented gardening client of mine says to plant plants that your grandmother had in her garden. Not only will indigenous plants attract bees, but they will also probably need less water and less care to thrive and beautify your garden. I’m particularly fond of any rose growing unattended in an old cemetery. 

Bees are attracted to plants that produce nectar. Add flowering plants to your vegetable garden and add vegetables to your flower garden. Flowering trees are also a great source of nectar for bees, and they provide a nesting spot for birds. One of my most favorite small trees to plant in the garden is a vitex tree. These trees are like honey for bees. In the summer these beautiful small trees tremble from all of the bee activity. If you desire a small tree for a sunny spot in the garden, consider adding a vitex. It has beautiful lavender or blue flowers that the bees cannot resist. Other flowering trees to consider are: Willows, ornamental and edible Plum and Cherry trees, Sycamore, Poplar, American Holly, Magnolia, Maple and Golden Rain trees. 


Flowering Herbs 

Bees love flowering herbs. Here again, you receive so many benefits from one small bush: beauty and texture in the garden, herbs for cooking and flowers for the bees to collect nectar. Some herbs repel pests, while flowering herbs, such as parsley, rosemary and basil, also attract butterflies to the garden. Add some herb plants to the flower garden or container garden for variety and hopefully to attract beneficial bees to the landscape. Here is a helpful and easy list of herbs to try: basil, chamomile, dill, lavender, mint, oregano and thyme, and don’t forget bee balm. Your garden will be buzzing with bee activity in short order!

Flowering Vines and Shrubs

There are many wonderful flowering shrubs with edible fruit that thrive in the Midlands that are also wonderful attractors for bees. Not only are blueberry bushes beautiful with their arching branches and blue tinged leaves, but also they produce delicious fruit that can be picked right off the branch and eaten. Bumblebees are particularly fond of blueberry blossoms and nectar. Bumblebees exhibit a specific type of pollination that can be very entertaining to observe called “buzz pollination.” The bees actually push themselves up into the blueberry flowers and vibrate their bodies. The pollen collects on their bodies, and they then go to the next plant. 

Strawberry plants are a great addition to a container full of annuals. They will cascade down the side of the container and surprise you with fragrant white blossoms that will mature into luscious red fruit that can be plucked right off the vine. They are easy to grow, very prolific and will come back season after season. There are also many vigorous climbing vines with fragrant flowers that attract bees as well; try adding clematis, honeysuckle, climbing roses and jasmine to the landscape to add a vertical element to the garden while adding diversity at the same time. You will be amazed at how many bees these vines will attract.


Color Considerations 

Bees use all sorts of senses to locate plants. It could be the size, flower shape, fragrance or color. We do know that bees don’t actually see color the same way that humans do as they see a UV spectrum. Suffice it to say that bees are usually attracted to flowers that are blue, purple, yellow and white. Remember this tip when choosing flowering perennials, annuals, herbs and trees for the garden.


Keep the Bees in Mind

When you are planning your garden or buying new specimens for the garden, keep the bees in mind. It is easy to attract and keep bees coming back to the garden. Remember that they need food, shelter and water … just as humans do. Consider what they are attracted to and try to include these choices in your diverse vegetable, flower or home landscape. The bees will thank you with lots of pollinating activity, making your garden more beautiful and healthy for years to come. I should add a disclaimer: if you are allergic to bees, please do not implement any of the above suggestions!


Blooms and Blossoms in November 

There are plenty of flowers, shrubs and trees still blooming in November. Use this list to extend the bloom time for your garden which will add beauty and enhance the life of bees in your garden. Here are a few to look for: Buddleia, Cassia, Roses, Tea Olive, Ageratum, Blue Salvia, Chrysanthemum, Dahlia, Gerbera Daisy, Impatiens, Lantana, Farfugium, Phlox, Plumbago, Portulaca, Rudbeckia, Sedum and Zinnia.   


Gardening Chores for November: 

• Trees and shrubs do well when they are planted in late fall, so now is the perfect time to add the tree that you have been admiring at the nursery.

• Spring blooming bulbs may still be planted.

• Divide perennials to plant in other areas of the garden, donate to a plant sale or share with gardening friends.

• Cut back chrysanthemums after they bloom so they become bushy again rather than floppy.

• Weeds never seem to die, so spend a beautiful November afternoon weeding the garden.

• Check mulch. If it is too thick, rake off a few inches from the top. If it’s too thin or looks weak, add a few inches of new mulch.

• Dig and store caladium bulbs. They usually do not overwinter in the Midlands.

• Remove dead annuals and recycle in the compost heap. Cut back any tired looking perennials to make the garden look neat and tidy.

• Buy some bulbs to force this winter.

• Replant annual containers. Consider adding daffodils and tulips for a nice surprise this coming spring.

• Rake fresh pine straw and use it in the garden for a fresh layer of mulch. Dual benefit of pretty, free mulch and good exercise!

• Check plants and grass for water. If it’s still warm, they will still need water if we don’t get much rain.

• Peruse the garden. Is there room for a large evergreen tree? Consider a living tree for Christmas this year. Go ahead and prepare the spot now so you can plant the tree right after Christmas Day.