The effects of climate change, continued deforestation, and the use of pesticides depleting our pollinator population is not news, but it’s beginning to hit home in my garden. No matter what I’ve tried, my fruits and vegetables have not been producing as I expected. Then, it dawned on me—what happened to all of my bees? Agriculture and bees, the most efficient pollinators, are dependent on each other. Thirty percent of our food—every third bite we take—is the result of something being pollinated.
A search led me to learning about bee species. Over 4,000 species of bees are native to North America, of which 1,600 are native to California. And, of the 20,000 species of bees worldwide, solitary bees make up 90% of all of the bees spread out over all continents except Antarctica. They differ from our imported European honeybees in that they do not live in hives protecting a queen, and they don’t make honey. They are docile, cavity-nesting insects, and are 120 times more efficient as pollinators than the honeybee.
Putting Knowledge to Use
Unless you’re planning on creating an apiary, the best solitary bees to add to your garden are the California native orchard mason bee (Osmia lignaria) for spring, active at 55 degrees, and the alfalfa leafcutter bee (Megachile rotundata) for summer, active at 75 degrees. They are named after their nesting material, with masons using mud and leafcutters using pieces of leaves. Males live for a short period of time just to mate with the females. Females live for to six weeks to build their nest and lay eggs for the next generation. They travel just a few hundred feet from their home to collect nectar and pollen to feed their young, and inadvertently pollinate our gardens, depositing excess pollen as they go from flower to flower.
Companion planting—intermixing flowering herbs and flowers producing nectar and pollen with your fruits and vegetables—will attract bees (and butterflies) for pollination, which will increase your production of food while supporting our pollinators, which in turn helps Mother Nature.
- Provide a variety of colors and shapes in small groupings, staggering blooming periods. Bees see purple, mauve, violet, blue, white, and yellow more easily than red. With UV light, bees see things in flowers our eyes cannot, including patterns, colors, and markings; they can beeline to the pollen source. The length of their tongue determines the shape of the flower they prefer. Many plants that attract bees will also attract other pollinators, such as butterflies.
- Plant a vegetable garden border with eye-catching annual color, such as baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) or low-growing nasturtiums (Tropaeolum).
- Include tall flowering herbs like chives (Allium schoenoprasum), rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus), dill (Anethum graveolens), lavender (Lavandula), and bee balm (Monarda).
Here are a few flowering recommendations that support pollinators, are water wise, and can be pruned to maintain desired size or increase blooms.
- California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): Yellow, orange, cream, and Purple Gleam varieties bloom February through May.
- California goldenrod (Solidago californica): Yellow spikes of flower clusters bloom summer through fall.
- Catmint (Nepeta × faassenii): Lavender-blue, pink, or white, these are a favorite of mason and leafcutter bees; varieties bloom spring through fall.
- Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis): With a small deciduous tree or shrub as a focal point, magenta-pink, pea-shaped flowers bloom in spring.
Create a Bee Corp
In addition to attracting bees to your garden with plantings, you can also purchase bees online from a variety of sources.
Mason and leafcutter bees can be purchased online from Crown Bees (from $35 for 200 bees), and shipped to your door with a bee house (similar to a small birdhouse). You can schedule delivery of the hibernating bee cocoons to coincide with your first blooms when the temperature is right. There’s no art to dispersing them in your garden. It’s as simple as placing the cocoons in the box and letting them wake up and go to work. Don’t worry, solitary bees don’t fly out in a swarm—it’s a slower process, and they’re more interested in your plants than you. It’s hard to pinpoint how many of the bees linger around your garden once dispersed, but solitary bees generally only travel a few hundred meters from their nesting site.