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New Guide Helps Citizens Customize Their Gardens for Native Bees

Posted by Jan Suszkiw, Public Affairs Specialist, Agricultural Research Service in Conservation Animals Plants Research and Science
Feb 21, 2017
A native Andrena bee species gathering nectar and pollen from a pear flower
A native Andrena bee species gathers nectar and pollen from a pear flower (Jim Cane, ARS).

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

Dogged by pests, pathogens, poor nutrition, and other problems, the European honey bee is having a rough time these days. The bee pollinates over 90 different kinds of fruit, vegetable and nut crops. These same crops are also pollinated by native bees, particularly on smaller or diversified farms and especially in home gardens. Together, their pollination services are an $18 billion annual asset to U.S. agriculture, and concern over their welfare prompted the White House in May to issue a directive aimed at bolstering their numbers and health through a series of initiatives including improving and expanding pollinator habitat.

Citizen involvement is another component. Among the actions citizens can take is growing nectar- and pollen-rich flowering plants; another is “customizing” garden or landscaping areas to make them more hospitable to these pollinators—especially native bees, says entomologist Jim Cane, with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS)  Pollinating Insect–Biology, Management, Systematics Research Unit in Logan, Utah.

In a three-year outdoor experiment conducted on the campus of Utah State University, Cane found that the common, widespread social bee species Halictus rubicundus (H. rubicundus) prefers digging its subterranean burrows next to small surface stones rather than in areas of bare soil. The next generation of queens, who mature in the fall and hibernate away from the cluster, return in the spring to use those same sites to establish nests of their own. Indeed, when Cane created a thin mulch of flat stream pebbles along the edges of a landscaped sidewalk area, he observed 66 to 78 percent more burrows there the following spring than in adjacent areas of bare soil.

Burrow dug by female Halictus rubicundus bee amid pebbles
Burrow dug by female Halictus rubicundus bee amid pebbles (Jim Cane, ARS).

Together with Utah State University Extension, Cane turned his research findings into practical guidelines that gardeners and landscapers can follow to create habitat areas that will serve other ground-nesting bees, which comprise about three-fourths of the 4,000 described native species in North America.

“Bees have two primary needs in life: pollen and nectar to feed themselves and their offspring, and a suitable place to nest,” writes Cane in his guide, Gardening and Landscaping Practices for Nesting Native Bees. While lists of bee-friendly plants are available, most practical advice focuses on practices to avoid, like using buried landscaping fabric or sprinkler-irrigation systems during daytime, which can disrupt a female bee’s orientation to familiar landmarks.

For ground-nesters, like H. rubicundus, Cane suggests creating a single surface layer of small, streambed-type pebbles along the perimeter of a flower garden or landscape area. It’s important that these pebbles remain undisturbed by foot traffic, because female bees will burrow into the ground near them and rely on the pebbles’ positions as landmarks to return to their nests after foraging for nectar and pollen. When pruning plants with woody stems that have pithy or hollow cores, Cane advises, leaving a few foot-long dead sprigs in place. This will attract species that prefer to nest above ground, like small orchard bees.

Urbanization, loss of habitat, and other events have taken a toll on managed and wild bees. But they’re resilient insects, and even a few simple steps to help these important pollinators can go a long ways.

“Watching them forage and nest can be great fun as well as educational for curious homeowners—they’ll quickly appreciate the truth in that old saw, ‘busy as a bee!’” says Cane.

Two female Peponapis squash bees pollinating a zucchini flower
Two female Peponapis squash bees pollinating a zucchini flower. These bees are key pollinators of squashes across much of the United States.

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Sep 08, 2015

I'm sorry but this article shows the hypocrisy of the USDA simply by pointing out: to truly help the Bees "eliminate" what has lead to their decline via the GMO crops infused with the pesticides causing their deaths.

Clare Thorp
Sep 08, 2015

As an agricultural scientist I fully appreciate the importance of our pollinators to the farming community, but encouraging bees in urban areas places a higher concentration of people in contact with insects than in the coutryside, insects which can sting and even occasionally, cause anaphalactic shock. Yet urban bee keepers are on the rise, and while people are exhorted to change their gardening practices and use of pesticides to protect the bees, little consideration is being given to harm this can cause - Up to 100 people a year die from insect bites, not including mosquito and tick borne disease such as West Nile Virus or Lyme Disease. I wish there was more balance to the "save the bees" call to action, and some recognition that people don't only have pollinators to protect but also themselves, their children and pets.

Sep 09, 2015

Why is there no mention of Neonicotinoids and the proven widespread damage/death and colony collapse they are causing to bees? Did someone (Bayer) pay to leave that out?

Sep 09, 2015

As someone else mentioned here, there seems to be an unfair negative opinion of bees by some in the urban community. People in those areas are afraid of them so an only good bee is a dead one. As a result, we use chemicals and who knows what kinds of cancers and other known diseases not to mention pollution that is causing which is more of a problem and leading to more deaths and healthcare costs than a few people getting bee stings.

Sep 09, 2015

I agree with everything Tony and Scotty said. I loved the article and agree with it, especially regarding the rock components within the landscape. But I really wish the USDA would also make more effort to enforce these same beliefs, opinions and practices on Industrial Agriculture. Clare Thorp's disgusting commentary of us against nature is typical of the dirt this world's Biotechs spew and feed the public on a daily basis in justification of their business model. Not surprisingly, she is an industrial biotechnology scientist. Gee, what a shocker that is. NOT!

Sep 09, 2015

I don't understand Clare Thorp's rationale. Yes, I agree that people shouldn't encourage bees to nest or feed close to where children or pets may play. But to suggest that bees shouldn't be encouraged in urban areas doesn't seem workable. As humans continue to over populate urban areas there's less countryside for bees, insects and wildlife in general. We're encroaching on their space, and then want to poison or otherwise kill them when they come into contact with us. There will be a lot more deaths from starvation if food production declines than there are from bee stings each year. Something to think about.

Sep 09, 2015

Encouraging native bee populations to thrive and raising honeybees in urban settings will do nothing but bring good things- despite the risk of stings. People who are allergic and pets that are allergic have recourse- if they're deathly allergic they should always have their injections nearby.

I'm glad to see the USDA taking a special interest in the health of native bee populations. Thank you for posting this information on what their burrows look like and how you can encourage them to thrive.

Native shrubs, trees, and perennials are not only essential for bee health, but they are also quite beautiful. Many cultivars developed from wild-types are well suited to today's landscape needs, so there's really no reason to rely on non-native plant choices in any landscape job or garden project. True however, there are some non-native plants that are well behaved and much loved by the native bees- but I have to imagine that planting the plants they evolved with will be the better investment, short term and long. For example, just planting more native viburnums would be a great start! For the bees, birds, and for function and beauty.

Sep 09, 2015

I'd like to have a beehive in my residential area and I have planted an edible frontyard. Some have a problem when people don't have a rectangle of green grass in the front yard. So I have gotten letters from the city telling me to "mow my yard" or get a $250 fine, when, if they could wait a week, the yard would be covered with blue flowers that are about 12 inches high. My goal is to always have something blooming all over the yard. I also see that a neighbor on one side hangs traps for things that I worry that if I have a beehive, they'll all get trapped and die. I know that a neighbor on the other side has bee allergies, but she and I both love flowers and have lots of those in our yards. I've also learned, during these extra hot summers, to leave water out for the bees and beneficial wasps (daily saucer with apple slice and an ice cube) to keep them from competing with hummingbirds at neighbors' feeders.