One of the most important things you can do as a gardener is attract bees to your garden. I have a particular fondness for bees, as most people named Melissa likely do. It’s hard not to feel affection toward these cute little insects that share my name.
I house several thousand honey bees, and countless native bees. My garden benefits daily from their hard work, not to mention the sweet reward of honey.
Bees are responsible for pollinating nearly 90% of wild plants and up to 75% of food crops globally. There are more than 4,000 varieties of bees in the United States alone!
When a bee lands on a flower to drink nectar, little hairs all over its body attract pollen particles through electrostatic force. Next time you’re out in the garden during the daytime, observe the tiny pollen pants that bees carry with them from place to place.
There are seven families of bees comprised of more than 4,000 genera. Honey bees, bumblebees, and stingless bees are colony bees that live in social groups and rear their young together. Meanwhile, mason, carpenter, leafcutter, and sweat bees are solitary.
Drawing bees to the garden is not an exact science. It has more to do with the combination of plants and other elements you create, as well as the types present in your region. A few features will go a long way to creating a bee sanctuary in your garden.
Flowers provide nectar, the main food and energy source for bees.
Nectar is the primary food source for bees. It provides them energy and is the substance they take back to the nest to produce honey that feeds their brood. Think of this as bee carbohydrates.
Without nectar sources, bees cannot live. Stored nectar feeds honeybee broods and the nurse bees caring for the larvae.
The best way to draw bees to your garden is to provide ample nectar supplies in the closest proximity possible. Bees are tiny and expend a huge amount of energy collecting nectar.
If they find a spot to collect all of the day’s nectar, they will return to that space faithfully. So, what does this mean for gardeners?
It means that the best way to draw bees to your garden is by planting large groupings of flowers, or flowering trees, that produce a lot of nectar. Some plants are better at this than others. Generally, native plants that have many flowers, like shrubs and trees, are best. Try natives that provide value in multiple seasons, especially the fall when few options are available. Consider New Jersey tea, smooth hydrangea, and Sweet crab apple.
Bees gather pollen in leg pockets for bee bread, aiding pollination as they travel.
Pollen is another vital food source for bees. They gather it in small pockets made from hairs on their back legs and bring it back to their nest to make bee bread. Along the way, they spread bits of pollen from one flower to another.
Pollen provides bees with much-needed protein and other nutrients, like lipids and vitamins. This pollen is vital to the colony’s life, providing the brood with the necessary nutrients and amino acids. As much as bees depend on flowers for pollen, flowers depend on bees for pollination.
Many bees have unique relationships with specific plants based on their particular pollination needs. Not all pollen is the same to bees. Brassicas and almond plants produce pollen high in crude protein, while others produce pollen that is significantly less appealing to bees.
Not all bees collect and store pollen, but many types do, so including plants that produce plenty of pollen is a crucial factor in attracting bees to the garden. Try direct sowing seeds for salvia, beardtongue, and Agastache.
To attract bees, provide a water source as they seek hydration.
The third factor in attracting bees to your garden is a water source. Bees expend a tremendous amount of energy as they collect pollen and nectar.
They are always looking for a water source to stop along the way and cool off. They are likelier to stick around if they can locate water in your garden.
A birdbath makes a great bee-watering station. Filling a birdbath with small pebbles that rise just above the water level will give the bees a place to land to quench their thirst.
You can find other specialty bee watering stations commercially. Birdbaths don’t have to be refilled as often, making them more convenient.
The Importance of Flower Color and Fragrance
Attracting bees involves understanding their unique ultraviolet vision.
Vision is another factor that sets bees apart from other pollinators like butterflies and hummingbirds. Bees see ultraviolet light and can differentiate between colors much faster than we are.
Human vision is based on the colors red, blue, and green. Because of their ultraviolet vision, bees see green, blue, and ultraviolet light. What does this mean in terms of flower color? A surprising amount.
Bees don’t have a photoreceptor for the color red. Red appears black, and black is a signal of danger for bees. For this reason, red flowers are not their favorites, and they rarely visit them unless they happen to be intermingled with flowers they are attracted to.
Bees can see yellow and orange. While they will visit flowers of these colors, their favorite flowers ones that reflect ultraviolet light in shades of violet, blue, and purple. Try planting purple asters, spiky catmint, and borage.
Fragrance is another factor that influences bee behavior. Bees will be more attracted to fragrant flowers because a flower releases its fragrance to indicate that it is ready for pollination.
With those factors in mind, here are 11 common bees common in North America and ways to attract them to your garden.
The American bumblebee is a vital pollinator for crops and gardens.
- Scientific Name: Bombus pensylvanicus
- Range: Eastern and Central United States, Great Plains
Once the most common bees in the United States, the American bumblebee is now considered an endangered species. It’s entirely absent from Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wyoming, all places it was once native.
This cute and fuzzy bee is an efficient pollinator and an important pollinator of crops, wildflowers, and cultivated gardens. Planting native flowering plants will attract these bees. I see them often when they’re visiting my Anise Hyssop, with its sweet licorice fragrance.
Bumblebee colonies die off in the winter, with only the queen bees left to reestablish the colony in spring. The queens overwinter underground or in holes in softwood.
Leaf litter provides a protective cover for bumblebee queens, so leaving your fall leaves on the ground until spring will help sustain bumblebee populations.
Black and Gold Bumblebee
Black and gold bumblebees, sizable with unique markings, are common and possibly growing in the US.
- Scientific Name: Bombus auricomus
- Range: Eastern North America to the Great Plains
The black and gold bumblebee is among the largest bees, with queens averaging ¾-1” long. Queens and workers can be identified by an extra black stripe at the juncture of their thorax and abdomen, where males are predominantly yellow. This bumblebee species is abundant in the US and may even increase in number.
Planting bee balm in your garden will attract these sweet, fuzzy, docile and gentle creatures. In general, these bees prefer prairie and grassland environments.
Brown Belted Bumblebee
These pollinators are widespread in the US, featuring varying sizes between queens, males, and workers.
- Scientific Name: Bombus griseocollis
- Range: United States except for Southwest
Brown-belted bumblebees are native to most of the United States except the Southwest. The queens of this species are also quite large, as are the males, but the workers are small, sometimes less than a cm long. They are docile unless you disturb their nest, at which point they can be protective.
This is a hardy species of Bumblebee, found in many habitats, from prairies to city gardens. They feed on many pollen and nectar-producing plants, but the queens have a special affinity for legumes.
European Honey Bee
Flowering trees and shrubs will encourage honeybees to stay around.
- Scientific Name: Apis mellifera
- Range: Not native, found throughout North America
It may be a surprise that the bees that pollinate most North American crops and produce the honey we consume are not native to the continent. Honeybees are native to Europe and Asia. The most popular varieties kept by beekeepers in the US are Italian, Carniolan, and Russian.
It is not important to plant native plants to attract honeybees, but flowering trees and shrubs will go a long way toward keeping these pollinators around. Honeybees make it their business to collect as much pollen and nectar in the smallest range possible.
The more flowers closer together, the more they will visit an area. Try umbel-shaped flowers like yarrow to maximize the quantity of blooms in a small space.
Golden Northern Bumblebee
Large and fuzzy, the Golden Northern bumblebee is a potent pollinator.
- Scientific Name: Bombus fervidus
- Range: Northern United States
This is a very industrious bumblebee found in most of the Northern United States. Like other bumblebees, the Great Northern bumblebee colony consists of workers and drones, all dying off in winter, with only the queen hibernating until spring. This is when she emerges and sets to work, creating a new colony.
The Golden Northern Bumblebee is a large species and very fuzzy. They are exceptional pollinators with large pollen baskets on their legs.
Using this pollen, they produce honey to feed their larvae. They build larval cells from wax, as honey bees do. Encourage them with buttonbush, shrubby cinquefoil, golden rod, and native native columbine, which naturalizes beautifully in the garden.
Green Sweat Bee
Green sweat bees, small and stunning with their vibrant metallic coloring, are essential pollinators found in Eastern and Central US.
- Scientific Name: Augochlora pura
- Range: Eastern and Central United States
Bees are beautiful little creatures. If you’ve ever taken a moment to watch these pretty insects at work, you probably know just what I mean. Green sweat bees are tiny bees with a weird name, but they are probably among the most beautiful bees out there.
Green sweat bees have brilliant coloring, their head and thorax are typically bright, metallic green, and their abdomen is usually striped pale yellow and black.
Sweat bees are integral pollinators that pollinate a wide variety of food crops. There are nearly 45,000 species of sweat bees ranging in color from green to gold to black. They are on the smaller side, around 7mm long, and native to the Eastern and Central United States. Entice them with echinacea, hoary vervain, and frogfruit.
Ligated Furrow Bee
Furrow bees are social, nest in the ground like bumble bees, and are excellent pollinators, especially in controlled environments.
- Scientific Name: Halictus Ligatus
- Range: United States except for GA, AL, SC
Furrow bees are social bees that nest in the ground with similar social structures to bumble bees. They are closely related to sweat bees. They are excellent pollinators, particularly in human-controlled environments.
The Ligated furrow bee is slightly smaller than a honey bee and fairly docile. Attracted to sweat, they land on your hand out of curiosity rather than being territorial. They have large heads for their body size, and the males have bi-colored antennae. Welcome them to your garden by growing scabiosa, monarda, and phacelia.
Orchard Mason Bee (Blue Orchard Bee)
Orchard mason bees are gentle metallic blue pollinators that emerge in spring to mate, collect nectar, and build nests.
- Scientific Name: Osmia lignaria
- Range: United States except for WY, FL, GA, HI, AL, MS, LA
These laidback, solitary bees are fantastic pollinators native to most of the United States. The males have no stingers, and the females, which are all fertile, are very docile, so they rarely sting. When they do sting, the sensation is akin to a mosquito bite.
These pretty, metallic blue bees emerge from their cocoons in spring and promptly mate. They then get to work pollinating and collecting nectar and pollen to build their nests and feed their larvae.
Orchard mason bees are roughly the same size as honey bees but are distinguishable by their coloration, blue and without any light markings on their abdomens. They are specialists in the Rosaceae family. To encourage them, include wild roses, blackberries, and strawberries.
Squash bees are specialized pollinators with a unique connection to squash plants that nest underground.
- Scientific Name: Peponapis pruinosa
- Range: United States, Canada, and Mexico
This little bee is found almost anywhere where squash is grown. Squash is native to North America, and these bees have a special relationship with the vegetable.
Squash bees feed exclusively on the pollen of the cucurbit family. For this reason, they are very effective pollinators of squashes, pumpkins, and gourds.
At first glance, these bees look very similar to honey bees. Their shape, size, and coloration are similar, so it is easy to mistake them.
However, squash bees are solitary, nesting in the ground and producing only one generation per year, whereas the honey bee makes a new generation every 22 days or so. There can be up to 4 generations of honey bees in a hive at any time. Not so for the squash bee.
Two-Spotted Longhorn Bee
During the growing season, the two-spotted longhorn bee emerges to feed on nectar and pollen from vegetables and flowers.
- Scientific Name: Melissodes bimaculatus
- Range: Eastern North America, West to Texas
The two-spotted longhorn bee is another docile, solitary bee that nests in the ground and produces only one generation yearly. They emerge from their nests during the growing season and feast upon the nectar and pollen of vegetable plants and other flowers. The females are larger than the males and are roughly the size of a honey bee.
The males of this species are friendly with one another. You can find them sleeping in groups under leaves and blades of grass, which they hold onto with their mandibles. They feed on many common vegetable garden plants. The females favor tubular flowers. Try growing Pineleaf penstemon and coral honeysuckle.
White-winged Fairy Bee
The stingless white-winged fairy bee is a small solitary species especially attracted to sunflowers and Black-Eyed Susans.
- Scientific Name: Perdita albipennis
- Range: North America
Found in most parts of North America, the white-winged fairy bee is a stingless solitary bee. This tiny bee is only one of about 600 species of the large Perdita genus. The bees in this genus are known for their tiny size, with the white-winged fairy bee coming in at barely 7mm long.
Planting sunflowers is a great place to start if you want to attract these adorable little bees. I also commonly see these sweet little insects on my Black-Eyed Susans. Their food of choice is the California Poppy, but they also enjoy flowers in the Helianthus genera.
Bees are in abundance in North America. These small insects are valuable to humans as they pollinate much of our garden flowers and food crops. Attracting bees will increase the yield of your vegetable garden and help keep your flowers blooming all season. They will return to your garden to work their pollinating magic if you provide them with ample nectar and pollen sources.