“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee. One clover and a bee, and revery. The revery alone will do, if bees are few.” Emily Dickinson.
Sadly, bee populations are declining. Bees are becoming few in numbers. The way things are heading, bees and prairies may someday just be things we see in our daydreams. However, like Emily Dickinson’s one bee, each one person who takes steps to help our pollinators is also helping our prairies and the future of our planets. Honeybee decline has made many headlines in the past few years, but bumblebee populations are declining too. Continue reading to learn how you can help by making a home for bumblebees.
Bumblebee Shelter Info
It may surprise you to learn that there are over 250 species of bumblebees, which mostly live in the Northern Hemisphere, though some are found throughout South America, too. Bumblebees are social creatures and live in colonies, like honeybees. However, depending on species, a bumblebee colony only has 50-400 bees, much smaller than honeybee colonies.
In Europe, North America and Asia, bumblebees are very important in the pollination of agricultural crops. Their decline and loss of safe habitats will have devastating effects on our future food sources.
In spring, queen bumblebees come out of hibernation and begin searching for a nest site. Depending on species, there are above ground nesters, surface nesters or below ground nesters. Above ground nesting bumblebees usually make their nests in old bird boxes, crevices in trees or in any suitable site they can find several feet above the ground.
Surface nesters select nest sites that are low to the ground, such as a pile of logs, cracks in house foundations or other out of the way locations. Below ground nesting bumblebees often nest in the abandoned tunnels of mice or voles.
How to Make a Bumblebee Nest
The bumblebee queen seeks out a nesting site that already has nesting materials, such as twigs, grasses, straw, moss and other garden debris in it. This is why abandoned nests of birds or small mammals are often selected as bumblebee nesting sites. Gardeners who are too tidy about garden debris may actually inadvertently deter bumblebees from nesting in their yards.
Bumblebees also prefer a nesting site that is in a partially shaded or shaded location, which is not frequented by people or pets. The queen bumblebee needs to visit about 6,000 flowers to attain the nectar she will need to arrange her nest, lay her eggs and maintain the proper temperature in the nest, so a bumblebee nest needs to be located near plenty of flowers.
An easy way to give bumblebees shelter is to leave old bird nest boxes or bird nests in place for bumblebees to move into. You can also make bumblebee nesting boxes with wood. A bumblebee nesting box is very similar in construction to a bird nesting box. Usually, a bumblebee box is 6 in. x 6 in. x 5 in. (15 cm. x 15 cm. x 8 cm.) and the entrance hole is only about ½ inch (1.27 cm.) in diameter or less.
A bumblebee nesting box will also need to have at least two other smaller holes near the top for ventilation. These nest boxes can be hung, set at ground level, or a garden hose or tube can be fixed to the entrance hole as a faux tunnel and the nest box can be buried in the garden. Be sure to fill it with organic nesting material before putting it in position.
You can also get creative when creating a bumblebee house. One brilliant idea I came across was using an old tea pot – the spout provides a tunnel/entrance hole and ceramic tea pot lids usually have vent holes.
You can also create a bumblebee house from two terra cotta pots. Glue a piece of screen over the drain hole in the bottom of one terra cotta pot. Then attach a piece of hose or tubing to the other terra cotta pot’s drain hole to act as a tunnel for bumblebees. Put nesting material in the terra cotta pot with the screen, then glue the two pots together lip to lip. This nest can be buried or half buried in an out of the way garden spot with plenty of flowers.
Additionally, you can also bury a section of hose in the soil so that the center of the hose is buried but with both open ends above the soil. Then place an upside down terra cotta pot over one side of the open hose end. Place a roof slate over the pot’s drainage hole to allow for ventilation but also keep rain out.
Creating a Bumblebee Nest
Bumblebee on Astrantia flower
The importance of bumblebees as agricultural pollinators can’t be overstated. Unlike honey bees, they are able to forage in cold, rainy, and cloudy conditions, so it is possible to see them in all kinds of weather. Even on a cold morning you can find a bumblebee sleeping inside a flower blossom waiting for some warmth to arrive. Some of the crops that bumblebees like to pollinate include tomatoes, peppers, raspberries, blueberries, chives, cucumbers, apples, strawberries, alfalfa, blackberries, soybeans, sunflowers, beans, cherries, apricots, plums, almonds, nectarines, peaches, rosehips, eggplants, and cranberries.
How to Build a Bee Habitat
by Matt Gibson
It is no secret that bees and plants have a symbiotic relationship: Bees feed on plants’ nectar, and in turn, the bees carry pollen from flower to flower, helping create new generations of plants. For a robust garden that entertains all sorts of visitors, create bee habitats to entice these powerful pollinators to stop by and perhaps take up residence in your yard.
There are several different kinds of bees, and which kind you prefer to attract will determine which habitats you choose to build. Unless you want to gather a swarm of honeybees and maintain a hive, you will want to build habitats for solitary bees. These shy little pollinators tend to get less media buzz than their more social relatives in hives, but they’re just as important for the ecosystem.
Attract, Create and Maintain: DIY Bee Houses
Luckily for those who wish to create bee-friendly spaces, there are easy ways to do so. A pleasant yard is going to be your first step in catching bees’ eyes. When planning and planting your garden, choose plants that fit the local plant profile: native species are a great choice for feeding the bees in your area and will also have an easier time growing than plants adapted to different zones. Bright colors attract pollinators and help to increase the biodiversity of any garden area.
Even though bees are considered solitary creatures, many still congregate together, working their way around the landscape in search of flowers to pollinate. Some bee species, such as the red mason or leafcutter bee, tend to nest in small tubes or tunnels. Don’t just drill holes into wood and expect to have made the perfect bee house, but making your own bee habitat can be fun, easy, and very affordable.
Check out this YouTube video on creating a simple bee habitat at home:
Problems with Store-Bought Bee Houses
Most store-bought bee houses are a waste of time, space, and money. Mass-produced bee houses often lack sufficient protection from the harsh elements of the weather. Some even have no solid back wall, making the contraption simply a wind tunnel that serves to kick bees out instead of lure them in. Often, these store-bought bee houses contain glass or plastic tubing, which causes condensation that can lead to fungus, mold and rot. All of these things can be particularly dangerous to the bees.
Keeping Up With Bee Houses
Gardeners who wish to attract solitary bees can simply drill some holes in surrounding tree bark, dry logs, or blocks of wood. Just make sure that the holes are at least two millimeters in diameter and no greater than 10 millimeters. Be sure to check these drilled holes to ensure their smoothness, and double check for any splinters you created while you worked. Bees will not enter if the pathway isn’t super clear, as they are afraid of messing up their wings and are wisely slow to trust a new environment. Plus, a smooth surface prevents wounding a bee.
Just drilling out a few holes in some spare wood may bring in a couple of extra pollinators to your garden area, but your work does not end there. If you create a bee house, you owe it to the bees to maintain the bee house as well. After each season, the different cells (or rooms) of your bee house should be cleaned out carefully to avoid contamination.
Attracting Bees With Plant Selection
Tiny shelters aren’t the only thing you can do to bring bees to your backyard. First of all, you want plants that have lots of nectar and pollen. The size of your garden is not what is important here. In fact, even a tiny little city garden should do the trick and bring in lots of new pollinators as long as you select the right plants. It’s no secret that bees love flowers, so why not plant lots of them? Start with some bee balm, black-eyed Susans, butterfly bush and purple coneflower. Even if you have made the perfect bee habitat and live in the right climate, bees won’t set up their home in your habitat if there is not ample plumage in the area.
The Future of Bee Conservation
Simply planting a handful of flowers that are known to attract bees is a great start, but it may not be enough to get a group of bees to settle down in your area. Ideally, if you want to attract more bees, you’ll want to get the right mix of plants to flowers, including some that bloom at different times in the year. Researchers are conducting studies to determine which flowers are the best for attracting bees and what combinations might be a good mix for increasing the bee population in a given area.
Scientists have determined that areas where lots of flowers are produced have been directly linked to bees in the area growing larger and producing more queens.
Planting more flowers is not the only thing we can do to help with bee conservation, but more research is needed before we can better understand bee life cycles and before we can really make an impact on the dwindling bee population. In order to know how to help the bee population grow, we need to figure out, for example, the resources a queen bee would need to survive a harsh winter, or which factors (aside from local fauna) determine what makes solitary bees decide to set up camp and call a certain area home over other areas.
Want to learn more about how to build bee habitats?
Written by Kelly Jacobi & Matt Gibson
Kelly Jacobi is an artist, designer, student, and patio gardener who enjoys seeing her plants thrive, and adorning her walls with pieces of art created by local artists and artisans. She is currently in pursuit of a bachelor’s of art and performance and hopes to delve deeper into her art and writing upon completion of her degree.
This post is wonderful! I recently put a few bee baths in my yard last month and I’ve seen a few little visitors dipping in while I’m outside working. I’ve been looking for some more bee-friendly plants to put in my backyard for them as well. I may have to see if I can scrounge up some spare parts to build a little house for the veggie garden before the end of the summer now.
I asked the question, if you live in a place with hotter summers, can the bees stand on hot stones, or handle the warm or hot water?
I have noticed that bees in my gardens love anything purple and especially sedum flowers.
Top 10 Ways to ReWild Your Garden
Douglas Tallamy, world renowned and influential ecologist/entymologist, urges Americans to go native and go natural. Many people shorten this and call it ‘ReWilding’. For a great article on his philosophy, read all about him in the Smithsonian magazine. For tips on ReWilding your own garden, read on.
Meadow plants at Longwood Gardens Longwood Gardens meadow
What is ReWilding?
ReWilding, returning your landscape back to nature, is possible for even the most urban of environments. Stepping back and allowing natural processes to occur – in the process reducing management of your yard – you can encourage wild plants and insects to return. ReWilding begins with recognizing native plants as the basis of the local food web that is essential for populations of native insects and other wildlife.
Looks fearsome, but this common Yellow Garden Spider feeds on flies, and other flying insects Staghorn Beetle
Even if you only have a tiny yard, these ReWilding principles are useful and easy to put into practice. If you don’t have an outdoor space to manage, consider adopting a street tree, tending a sidewalk strip or community area, or planting containers with natives.
Strip between the street and sidewalk can be your space to rewild
- Forget Tidy– Nature isn’t tidy, and by being neat and cleaning up all our garden debris, our properties become a desolate and sterile landscape to other living things. Leave those seed heads up and don’t clean every last leaf off of your lawns and planting beds.
2.Ditch Chemicals-Homeowners are the biggest culprit of over-using chemical deterrents for pests which can remain in the environment long after they are used. This includes pesticides, weed killers, slug pellets, and fertilizers. Look for seeds and plants that are free of chemicals.
Don’t use chemicals and let your neighbors know Use chemical free seeds and plants
3. Plant Vertically– If you have mostly concrete or a paved property, think about growing native vines in containers or squeeze a vine into a crack in the concrete to grow up a wall. Several native vines, like Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla) or ‘Amethyst Falls’ Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens), are frequented by hummingbirds and long-tongued insect pollinators and is a host plant to many native insects.
Wisteria frutescens ‘Amethyst Falls’, a better behaved native wisteria Dutchman’s Pipe Vine planted on fence
4. Add Water-A small basin or built in pond with some pond plants can greatly increase the biodiversity of your property. Native salamanders, frogs, toads, and other aquatic life will find it. Native toads need water, even a water filled ditch, to reproduce. I have a pond and frogs and toads populate it without me having to do anything.
5. Stop or Decrease Mowing-Set aside an area of your lawn or the entire lawn that can grow up without mowing. This will increase the biodiversity with grass seed heads and wildflowers taking root and eventually trees. You can also mow pathways through your lawn for better access throughout the year or simply decrease the number of times that you mow. Oxeye daisies, goldenrod, and other wildflowers will quickly move in. Let your weeds flower in the lawn if you cut it. Blooming clover is a great nectar source for honeybees and native bees.
Meadows can be beautiful and full of life Dandelions in your lawn are a great nectar source when resources are scarce
6.Set Out the Welcome Mat for Animals-Install bird houses, bug hotels, and underground nests for bumblebees. Leave a pile of debris like sticks alone as animals will use it for shelter. Keep pithy stems up, like sunflowers or teasels, so insects can overwinter in them. Go to Bumblebee Conservation Trust to see how to make a simple Bumblebee habitat.
Create a native bee habitat Bumblebee nest made out of an old terra cotta pot
7. Encourage Others-Talk to neighbors and persuade local schools or governments to become wilder, with less mowing and maintenance. Your ammunition is that rewilding can save money by reducing the time and manpower to cut lawns every week.
8. Diversify-The more species of plants we plant, the more insects and other animals we entice in. Instead of planting a large screen of Green Giant Arborvitae, plant a mix of deciduous and evergreen shrubs as a hedge. Aim for at least 70-80% of native plant species.
Mixed variety screen
9. Plant Native Trees– If you have the room, planting native species of oaks, cherries, willows, and poplars, is one of the most important choices we can do in our backyard space. Native trees produce habitat and food for insects that in turn feed our songbirds that have catastrophically declined in numbers.
An oak tree is one of the best things that you can plant
10. Set an Example-Set up a yard sign that informs others what you are doing and encourage curious passersby’s to stop and ask questions. Others will be inspired to follow your example.
Set up a yard sign to tell your neighbors
For a great visit to see some meadow plantings, go to Longwood Gardens, Chanticleer, Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center, or Delaware Botanic Gardens.
Aerial view of the meadow at Delaware Botanic Garden, photo from DBG