See a bee buzzing around your vegetable garden? Don’t swat it away! It’s busy at work pollinating these plants so you can have food. Honey bees pollinate 80% of all flowering plants, including over 130 fruits and vegetables.
So don’t bee afraid of these insects. Instead, welcome them to help your garden grow!
What is a honey bee?
You know their delicious end product, but what exactly is a honey bee? To start, they’re not native to North America, but Europe, Africa and parts of Asia. They were first brought over to North America in the 1600s by European colonists for their honey and wax production.
Honey bees live in hives or nests where they make beeswax and honey. And their skills go beyond producing honey — they’re great pollinators, especially in an orchard or field.
Bees and pollinators
Pollinators are insects that go to a flower and gather either nectar or pollen, covering themselves in pollen. They then fly to another flower and transfer the pollen, helping the plant reproduce.
Bees are great pollinators because they spend so much time collecting pollen for their offspring, to use as protein in their food. This in turn helps plants — a win-win relationship! With most of our flowering plants being pollinated by animals, it’s important to make sure bees can keep buzzing for generations to come.
“Bees help our ecosystem because plants are the basis of all of life on Earth. Without healthy plant life, we don’t have healthy animal life. So, we have to have bees and plants working together to perpetuate life on Earth,” said Jim Locklear, director of conservation at Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha, Nebraska.
With thousands of species of bees in the U.S. alone, not every bee you see is a honey bee. Many insects you may think are flies are actually bees, hard at work pollinating plants.
Organizations, such as Lauritzen Gardens, are working to learn more about native bees and help them thrive in local areas. Lauritzen Gardens has partnered with University of Nebraska-Lincoln to collect bees at the garden during growing season and take them back to the lab to identify and learn more about them.
Many native bees, unlike honey bees, aren’t as visible to humans due to their solitary nature. Native bees live alone burrowing in areas, such as soil, hollow stems and wood, so people may not be as familiar with native bees.
“A lot of them are out of sight, out of mind to us,” Locklear said. “But they’re very important in the role they play in pollination, particularly in wildflowers.”
This mindset can lead to destruction or disruption of the bee’s habitat which can affect the natural ecosystem, Locklear said. But there are ways we can help ensure their survival.
Facts about bees
- Honey bees have jobs: queens, workers or drones. Queens lay eggs. Workers clean the hive, take care of the queen and bring back food. Drone bees mate with the queen.
- There are more than 4,000 native bees in the U.S.
- Only female bees collect pollen.
- Bees actually have four wings, not two!
- They come in a variety of colors: black, brown or striped with white, yellow and orange.
How you can help bees
You don’t need to redo your entire backyard to help bees. You can help native bees by:
- Incorporating native plants into your landscape. Visit your local garden center to learn what plants are native in your area, as some native plants that are great for one area, may be invasive to yours.
- Starting your wildlife garden with the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for WildlifeTM Native Plant Collections.
- Purchasing plants that are known to attract bees, such as salvia, sunflowers, coneflowers, goldenrod and catmint.
- Visiting your local botanical garden to see native plants and learn more about bees in your neighborhood.
5 bee-friendly plants
We’ve worked with Lauritzen Gardens to identify five plants that help bees thrive. But as you read, it’s important to pay attention to the planting zone. You can see what number planting zone you’re in on the USDA website.
- Ajuga reptans (bugleweed) — This is an excellent early-season pollen source. It’s a dense, rapidly spreading, mat-forming ground cover that features shiny, dark green leaves. Zone 3-10
- Pulmonaria officinalis (lungwort) — Also an excellent early-season pollen source, this plant is a slow spreading, rhizomatous, herbaceous perennial of the borage family. It grows best in moist, well-draining soils with partial sun. Zone 3-9
- Nepeta racemosa (catmint) — Catmint is an excellent low maintenance pollen source that blooms for a long period. It’s highly adaptable, prefers full sun to partial shade with well-draining soil, but can tolerate a range of soil types and conditions. Once established, it’s drought tolerant and requires minimal maintenance. Zone 4-8
- Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop) — A bee magnet providing an excellent pollen source during the peak of summer, this plant grows upright and is clump-forming in full sun. It prefers well drained, medium to dry soil moisture. Anise hyssop can be short-lived so let seed it out. Zone 4-9
- Eutrochium purpureum (Joe-Pye-weed) — This is an excellent tall late summer early fall pollen source. Depending on variety, growing heights can range from three to 12 feet, and it grows best in moist to well-drained soil in partial to full shade. Zone 4-8
Bees aren’t the only pollinators. Learn about another important pollinator, the monarch butterfly.