In the intricate tapestry of Earth’s ecosystem, one tiny creature emerges as a true hero: the humble bee. While their small size may deceive the untrained eye, these industrious insects wield immense power as pollinators, shaping the very foundation of our natural world.
From wildflowers to crops that sustain our existence, bees play an irreplaceable role in maintaining biodiversity, food security, and ecological balance—they pollinate one third of our food supply and one third of the feed for our meat sources. “Bee” a part of the solution and help support pollinating bees in your garden and neighborhood!
How Does Pollination Work?
Bees consume nectar for energy, while pollen is collected to provide protein and other nutrients to their larvae. As bees visit various flowers to extract pollen, it is transferred from flower to flower—the process of pollination. Since many plants need pollen to reproduce and flowers create nectar as a reward for pollination, it’s a mutually beneficial process!
The length of a bee’s “tongue,” or proboscis, determines what types of flowers it can access for nectar. Short-tongued bees are limited to gathering nectar from flowers that are open or have short-tubed corollas, such as Sunflowers and Goldenrods. Long-tongued bees (honey bees, bumble bees, leafcutter bees, mason bees) are also able to access nectar from long-tubed or complex flowers such as Monkshood or Penstemon. Some small bees with short tongues can also get into deep, wide corollas. The nectar reward from a flower that can only be visited by long-tongued bees is generally higher than from an “easy access” flower.
Both males and females forage at flowers to feed on nectar for energy, but only females collect pollen to take back to the nest. Females of most bee species accumulate pollen on feathery hairs all over their body, then use their front and middle legs to rake the pollen and transfer it to scopae or corbiculae (pollen basket) on the hind legs or abdomen. Males unintentionally pick up some pollen while foraging. You will not see pollen carried on cuckoo bees, nor on bees in the genus Hylaeus which carry pollen internally in their “crops” and regurgitate it later.
How to Create a Pollinator Garden for Bees
By creating a pollinator garden, you can provide a welcoming habitat for bees, ensuring their survival while enjoying the beauty of a thriving garden. Here are some helpful steps to create a bee-friendly garden:
Select a sunny location: Bees thrive in areas that receive ample sunlight, so it’s best to choose a spot in your yard that gets at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day.
Opt for native plants: Native plants, such as Oregon Grape, are well-adapted to the local climate and provide the best resources for local bee species. Choose a variety of flowering plants that bloom at different times throughout the year to provide a consistent food source.
Select a diversity of flowers: Bees are attracted to a wide range of flower shapes, colors, and scents. Incorporate a variety of flower types including tubular, bell-shaped, flat, and clustered flowers to accommodate various bee species. Aim for a mix of colors like blues, purples, yellows, and whites, as bees are especially attracted to these hues (they cannot see the color red). Some flowers also have distinct patterns that serve as “nectar guides” to help attract pollinators.
Plant in clusters: Planting flowers in clusters or “pollinator targets” helps bees locate and efficiently collect nectar and pollen. Grouping several of the same plant species together will also create a stronger visual impact and attract more bees to your garden.
Provide year-round resources: Ensure your garden offers food sources for bees year-round by establishing continuous blooms throughout the growing season. Incorporate early-flowering plants for Spring, Summer bloomers, and late-season flowers for Fall. Additionally, consider planting shrubs and trees that produce flowers, fruits, or nuts, which can provide sustenance during leaner times. Check out our blog on Supporting Pollinators in Fall & Winter for more tips.
Provide a water source: Bees need water for hydration and nest-building, so consider including a water feature in your garden. Fill a shallow dish or birdbath with fresh water and add some rocks or floating plants for the bees to land on while drinking.
Avoid or minimize pesticide use: Pesticides can be harmful to bees and other pollinators. Instead, focus on creating a healthy garden ecosystem by practicing organic gardening methods, promoting natural pest control, and utilizing companion planting to deter pests.
Create nesting sites: Bees require suitable nesting sites to raise their young. Leave some areas of bare soil or provide small piles of twigs, leaves, and hollow plant stems for solitary bees to nest in. You can also install bee houses specifically designed for solitary bees.
11 Common Plants for Bees in the Pacific Northwest
- Lavender: Fragrant perennial herb that produces clusters of purple, pink, or white flowers that attract bees and other pollinators.
- Catmint: Perennial plant featuring spikes of lavender or blue flowers that are highly attractive to bees and butterflies.
- Oregon Grape: Native, evergreen shrub that produces clusters of yellow flowers in spring, providing a valuable early-season nectar source for bees.
- Black-Eyed Susan: Cheerful, daisy-like flower that has yellow petals with a dark center, attracting bees and butterflies.
- Salvia: Various species of salvia, such as Common Sage or Meadow Sage have vibrant flowers that attract pollinators.
- Bee Balm: With its showy red, pink, or purple flowers, bee balm is highly attractive to bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
- California Poppy: Bright orange or yellow flowers add a pop of color to the garden while attracting bees and butterflies.
- Russian Sage: Drought-tolerant perennial plant that produces spiky clusters of lavender-blue flowers, which are loved by bees.
- Helenium: Late-summer bloomer featuring vibrant yellow, orange, or red flowers that attract bees and butterflies.
- Penstemon: Diverse group of perennials that offers a wide range of flower colors and shapes, attracting bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies. Some popular varieties include Foxglove Beardtongue and Foothill Penstemon.
- Oregon Stonecrop: Low-growing succulent with clusters of star-shaped yellow flowers that bloom in summer, attracting bees and butterflies. Its drought tolerance and ability to thrive in various soil types make it a popular choice for pollinator-friendly gardens.
How to Tell the Difference Between Bees & Wasps
Wasps, often known for their reputation as fierce predators and stingers, actually play a surprising role in the realm of pollination. Unlike bees that deliberately collect pollen, wasps inadvertently carry pollen from one flower to another as they forage for nectar or prey on other insects—this is known as incidental or secondary pollination.
Understanding the diverse roles of these often-misunderstood insects can help us foster a more comprehensive and balanced perspective on nature. And knowing the difference between wasps and bees can help everyone remain safe and happy around your home. Observing a few key characteristics will help you distinguish a bee from a wasp: Wasps are less hairy than most bees, often have more obvious “waists,” and generally feature brighter color patterns.
Some flies resemble bees as well, but flies only have two wings, while bees and wasps have four wings. Most flies have larger eyes that meet nearly on top of their head and shorter, thinner antennae. Bee-mimicking flies include bee flies, robber flies, and flower flies which hover like helicopters. Especially as a gardener, it’s always helpful to know your bugs!