Supporting Bees in Your Garden and on Your Farm

Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS1280

Photo depicting Supporting Bees in Your Garden and on Your Farm
  • Rachael Winfree, Professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources
  • Julia Criscione, Research Technician, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences
  • Erin Lowe, Research Technician, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources
  • Lucia Weinman, Graduate Student, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources

Bees are critical pollinators of 2/3 of the crops we eat and of most of the world's flowering plant species. The honeybee, while exceptionally important to commercial agriculture, is just one of 20,000 species of bees around the world, the great majority of which are wild (see Bee Diversity, below). These wild bees are industrious pollinators, working alongside honeybees to pollinate both crops and wild plants. In fact, many crops depend as much on wild bees as they do on honeybees, and abundant populations of wild bees can significantly increase crop production.

Bee Diversity

To many people, honeybees are the most familiar bees, but they are unusual in many ways. No other bees produce a measurable quantity of honey, and none except bumblebees live in large, social colonies. Most of the non-social bee species are gentle and rarely sting. They vary widely in shape and color, and range from the size of a poppy seed to the width of a golf ball. In your backyard alone you may find green metallic bees nesting in underground tunnels, blue carpenter bees drilling holes in plant stems, and even parasitic bees that invade other bees' nests. All bees feed exclusively on pollen and nectar from flowers, and their frequent flower visits are what makes them such indispensable pollinators.

Zoom inPhoto: Figure 1.

Fig. 4: A bumblebee (Bombus sp.) pollinating a tomato plant.

Zoom inPhoto: Figure 2.

Fig. 5: A green sweat bee (Agapostemon sp.).

Zoom inPhoto: Figure 3.

Fig. 6: A mining bee (Andrena erigeniae).

Zoom inPhoto: Figure 4.

Fig. 7: A sweat bee (Halictus sp.).


Unfortunately, wild bees and honeybees alike face considerable threats from pesticides, disease, and loss of habitat, and have experienced marked declines. For example, a once-common pollinator of cranberry crops in New Jersey, the Rusty Patched Bumblebee, has disappeared from more than 80% of its range and was listed as endangered in 2017. This fact sheet provides information on how you can help combat threats to bees by establishing safe, high-quality bee habitat in your garden or on your farm.

Zoom inPhoto: Figure 5.

Fig. 8: Meadows provide large-scale foraging habitat for honeybees and wild bees.

Planting Flowers for Bees

Most bee species require pollen and nectar from multiple plant species. Additionally, different bee species are active at different times of the year and require flowers that bloom throughout the season. For these reasons, it is important to plant pollinator habitat with at least three different kinds of flowers blooming concurrently in spring, summer, and fall (see Bloom Calendar, below.). Prioritize native plants over non-natives to minimize the risk of introducing weedy species. When choosing plants or seeds from a native plant nursery, make sure they have not been treated with insecticides.

Flowering Meadows vs. Woody Plants

Pollinator seed mixes are readily available from native seed suppliers and are easy to plant. Note, however, that flowers planted from seed may take a few years to provide abundant blooms and large meadows require site preparations and ongoing maintenance such as mowing. Installing flowering shrubs and trees is more expensive than using seed, but these plantings require less long-term maintenance and can produce flowers immediately. While most herbs bloom in the summer and fall, many shrubs and trees bloom in the spring, providing critical resources for early spring bees.

Zoom inPhoto: Figure 6.

Fig. 9: Hedgerows also provide large-scale foraging habitat for honeybees and wild bees.

Flowering Lawns and Crops

You can also support bees by modifying how you manage your lawn or farm. Establishing a flowering lawn with low-growing flowers can provide food for bees without planting new garden beds. Flowering crops, including cover crops such as buckwheat or clover, and many food crops, such as stone fruits, apples, melons, and squashes, also provide significant floral resources for bees. Diverse crop systems are better than monocultures at providing the variety of flowers that bees need.

Resources

Established Plantings

  1. Pollinator Plants: Mid-Atlantic Region (from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation) (PDF)
  2. Incorporating Native Plants in Your Residential Landscape (from Rutgers NJAES)
  3. Conservataion Cover for Pollinators: New Jersey Installation Guide and Job Sheet (from Rutgers Winfree Lab/Xerces) (PDF), which includes a list of NJ native plant nurseries.

Flowering Lawns

  1. Flowering Bee Lawns (from The University of Minnesota).

Woody Plants

  1. Hedgerow Planting for Pollinators: New Jersey Installation Guide and Job Sheet (from The Xerces Society) (PDF)
  2. Edge Feathering (from The Kentucky Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Resources) (PDF)

Bloom Calendar

A short list of bee-attractive native flowering herbs, shrubs, and trees commonly available at native plant nurseries in NJ. For more comprehensive guides to plants that are good for bees and a list of native plant nurseries, see the resources section below.

Herbs
Native Plant Light Color Bloom Season
Latin Name Common Name Spring Summer Fall
Hydrophyullum virginianum Eastern Waterleaf shade white      
Geranium maculatum Wild Geranium partialshade pink      
Mertensia virginica Virginia Bluebell sunpartialshade blue      
Lupinus perennis Wild Lupine sunpartial blue      
Baptisia tinctoria Yellow Wild Indigo sunpartial yellow      
Tradescatia virginiana Virginia Spiderwort sunpartial purple      
Monarda fistulosa Bee balm sunpartial dark-pink      
Asclepias spp. Milkweed sun orangedark-pink      
Penstemon digitalis Foxglove sunpartial white      
Echinacea purpurea Purple Coneflower sun purple      
Eutrochium fistulosum Joe-Pye Weed sunpartial magenta      
Rudbeckia hirta Black-Eyed Susan sun yellow    
Solidago spp. Goldenrod sun yellow    
Symphiotricum spp. Aster sunpartial pink    
Pycnanthemum spp. Mountain Mint sun white    
Trees & Shrubs
Native Plant Light Color Bloom Season
Latin Name Common Name Spring Summer Fall
Amelanchier spp. Serviceberry sunpartial white    
Salix discolor Willow sunpartial pale-yellow    
Acer rubrum Red Maple sunpartial red    
Magnolia virginiana Magnolia sunpartialshade white      
Cercis canadensis Redbud sunpartialshade magenta      
Rhododendron spp. Wild Azalea sunpartialshade pinkwhite      
Nyssa sylvatica Black Tupelo sun green      
Rosa spp. Rose sunpartial pinkwhite      
Spiraea tomentosa Steeplebush sun pink      
Tilia americana Basswood sunpartialshade white      
Amorpha fruticosa False Indigo Bush sun purple      
Zoom inPhoto: Figure 7.

Fig. 10: A nest box with hollow plant stems and holes drilled in wood.

Providing Nesting Habitat

About 70% of wild bee species construct their nests in the ground, digging tunnels into which they deposit pollen and lay their eggs. To support ground-nesting bees, leave bare patches of sand or soil in sunny, well-drained areas near pollinator plantings. Farmers should be aware that tilling can damage nests; following reduced tillage practices or no-till strategies can mitigate or prevent damage.

Most other wild bee species nest above ground, chewing tunnels in dead wood or using cavities such as beetle holes and hollow plant stems. To support cavity-nesters, avoid removing dead trees, stumps, and brush piles. You can also purchase or build your own 'nest boxes' to place in sunny areas within or near plantings.

Resources

Providing Nesting Habitat

  1. Nests for Native Bees (from the Xerces Society) (PDF).

Tilling Practices

  1. Conservation Assistance for Healthy Soils in Connecticut - Reduced Tillage (from NRCS) (PDF)
  2. Frequently Asked Questions on Reduced Tillage Systems in Vegetables (from Cornell University)
  3. An Introduction to Weed Management for Conservation Tillage Systems (from Penn State Extension)
  4. Crop Rotations and Conservation Tillage (from Penn State Extension)

Minimizing Insecticides

While insecticides can be convenient tools for managing unwanted garden visitors, they can also be harmful to bees. Some insecticides can kill bees outright, while others can reduce offspring production and bees' abilities to forage and navigate. Bees can come in contact with insecticides at the time they are sprayed, but they are more often exposed to residues that persist in the environment after application. The best way to protect pollinators from insecticides is to stop using them entirely. Strategies for managing pests without insecticides range from simple solutions such as covering plants to more complex practices like integrated pest management (IPM), which emphasizes the use of monitoring and biological control over insecticides.

If you have exhausted other pest-control strategies and determine insecticide use is necessary, you can follow these guidelines to minimize your impact on pollinators:

What to Apply

  • Use targeted insecticides (e.g., Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) for caterpillars), which are targeted to specific insects and are less harmful to bees. Broad-spectrum insecticides are made to kill all insects and are the worst for bees. These include neonicotinoids, organophosphates, carbamates, and pyrethroids. Note that even organic insecticides (e.g., Pyrethrin and spinosad) can be harmful.
  • Granular insecticides are the least harmful to bees, while micro-encapsulated insecticides and powders are the most harmful as they stick to bees like pollen.

Where, When, and How to Apply

  • Avoid applying insecticides on or near plants that are blooming, and apply at night or late in the evening when bees are inactive.
  • Apply at night when bees are inactive, but avoid cold or dewy nights, and conditions characteristic of temperature inversion: clear, still nights, with low fog near sunrise or sunset. Cold temperatures and dew can both increase the period of toxicity, and inversion can cause spray droplets to drift via ground-level moisture.
  • Follow label guidelines and do not apply more than recommended.
  • Minimize drift. If using liquid sprays, spray low to the ground and in low wind. Use sprays with large droplets. Protect pollinator habitat by using windbreaks or hedgerows.

Resources

IPM

  1. Integrated Pest Management (from Rutgers NAJES)
  2. Pest Management and Education (from Penn State Extension)
  3. UC IPM (from University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources)
  4. Manage Insects on Your Farm (from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education)

Insecticide Use

  1. Sustainable Pest Management (from The Xerces Society)
  2. How to Reduce Bee Poisoning from Pesticides (from Pacific Northwest Extension) (PDF) (includes a list of insecticides ranked by toxicity)
  3. Organic-Approved Pesticides (from The Xerces Society) (PDF)

Organic Land Management

  1. Organic Land Care (from Rutgers NAJES)

Mention or display of a trademark, proprietary product, or firm in text or figures does not constitute an endorsement by Rutgers Cooperative Extension and does not imply approval to the exclusion of other suitable products or firms.

Photo Credits: Fig. 1: Joseph Berger, Bugwood.org; Fig. 2: Ansel Oommen, Bugwood.org; Fig. 3: David Cappaert, Bugwood.org; Fig. 4: Nacho Bartomeus; Fig. 5: Barry Rosenthal; Fig. 6: Valerie Giles; Fig 7: Michael Roswell; Fig. 8: Julia Criscione; Fig. 9: Sarah Foltz Jordan, Xerces Society; Fig. 10: maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com.

November 2017


  1. Rutgers
  2. Executive Dean of Agriculture and Natural Resources
  3. School of Environmental and Biological Sciences
Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station