Bringing Back Wild Bees, Wild Flowers, and Wildlife to Local Backyards

Text and photos by Gigi Charters, unless otherwise noted

Photo of a "bee hotel," which shaped like a bird house but filled with cut bamboo
Example of a pre-made bee house structure, set up at the event.

Last month, I had the opportunity to listen to USGS Wildlife Researcher, Sam Droege, and Arlington County Parks and Recreation Natural Resource Manager, Alonso Abugattas, in the exciting event, “Morph Your Yard into a Bee Grocery Store—Not a Bee Fast Food Joint! Building Homes and Habitat for Native Bees and Pollinators,” sponsored by ARMN and the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia.

Sam and Alonso discussed the significance of wild bee populations and two important ways that we can help our local bees thrive: provide pollen sources and nesting structures.

To begin, Sam briefed the audience about the apparent over-reliance on honey bee populations, and how we may be driving out another critical lifeline in the event of ecosystem collapse––the overlooked, super pollinating, native bees.

Photo of a native sweat bee
Native sweat bee, Augochloropsis sumptuosa. Photo courtesy of Sam Droege.

“Wild bees are not like honey bees,” Sam emphasized. In fact, I learned that there are around 4,000 species of native bees in North America alone, and they have been playing a critical role in sustaining ecosystems and natural resources for millions of years. The majority are solitary, can be as small as a grain of rice, and do not sting people (stingers cannot break through our skin). 

Moreover, unlike the honey bee, which was actually imported by colonists, native bees provide us with the essential pollinating services we need for native plants, in addition to commercial crops. Sam explained that the big issue is that land-use changes and habitat loss are diminishing wild plant populations, which conversely diminish wild bee populations, which means: no bees, no plants, no species who depend on those plants, and eventually, ecosystem collapse.

So how can we fix this?

Step 1: Provide pollen by planting a garden of native wildflowers!

Photo of Sam Droge standing in front of a projection which has a picture of a bee and says "Can gardens save the bee universe? Its worth a shot"
Sam Droege explains how gardening with native plants can help bees.

Sam says “re-wild” your land by moving away from lawn/corporate kinds of landscapes and start bringing back naturalized types of landscapes. The big picture is about saving plant and bee diversity, so it’s important to plant a variety of native species. This is especially important since some native bees are specialists, meaning they are dependent on one—and only one—type of flower. Some bees can only reproduce if they have specific pollen from the native plants they evolved with.

Step 2: Provide Nesting Structures!

Photo of pre-made wooden bee hotels
Various pre-made bee house structures at the event.

Alonso continued the discussion by stressing the importance of another crucial native bee resource in need of recovery––bee nesting structures.

About 70% of all bee species live in burrows in the ground, so it’s important to create ideal ground space, such as loose soils that are free of vegetation and exposed to the sun.

The remaining bee species live above ground, in pre-existing cavities like old beetle holes, or hollow empty stems of reeds or grasses. Alonso added that “this is one more reason to leave garden plants standing through the winter, as many are housing insects in various parts of their life cycle, including pupating or adult overwintering bees.”

He noted that in addition to buying select bee houses, people can also make their own structures at home. While many species will make use of them, Mason bees (Osmia sp. peaceful, dark, solitary bees) in particular, are likely their most common tenants, and “luckily what usually works for them, generally works for other species,” said Alonso.

Photo of Alonso Abugattas gesturing to a bee hotel in discussion with Kit Britton
Alonso discusses various mason bee houses with Kit Britton.

He gave the example: “One simple way is to cut some bamboo, Phragmites (a good use for both these invasives), elderberry, and/or sumac at their nodes, hollow them out all the way to the node so one side is still sealed, and bundle them together (with the open ends facing one direction) for the bees to discover. Place them where they will get some sun in the morning and some shelter from the rain.”

Photo of Alonso Abugattas standing in front of a projection of an image of a bee hotel
Alonso with an example of a bee “hotel.”

To learn more about native bees, how to create your garden of bee-friendly plants, and how to build your bee homes, check out Alonso’s blog piece, which includes information about nesting structures, best ways to encourage and protect bees, and a list of the best plants for specialist bees. Following these guides will help restore local biodiversity!

Also, to see more incredible photos of these bees, visit Sam’s webpage with photos from the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab, and follow the Instagram/Tumblr accounts @USGBIML.

So, let’s kick off spring with an abundance of native flowers and bee homes! Remember, every resource area, whether it’s a patch in the ground, or an epic garden, can have huge impacts on sustaining bee populations during these urgent times. We just need your help to provide them with the assets to make that comeback!