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How to invite pollinators into your garden

Bee feasting on purple aster. Photo: John Severns, Wikimedia.com
Bee feasting on purple aster. Photo: John Severns, Wikimedia.com
Have you invited a bee to dine in your garden lately? If not, spring’s a great time to prepare a tasty buffet to encourage their visit. 

Why would you want to invite a little creature with a stinger into your garden? One word – pollination!

Why pollinators matter

Nearly all ecosystems on earth depend on the pollination of flowering plants for survival. One-third of the world's food supply depends on bees for pollination. Every year in California alone, honeybees pollinate more than 100 crops worth more than $6 billion, including vegetables, nuts, fruit and wildflowers.

Plants and pollinators have evolved together and depend on one another for survival. Human population growth threatens wild creatures and a variety of plant species by shrinking their habitat. As native plants disappear, so do the pollinators. Placing native plants and other pollinator-supporting plants in the landscape helps support native pollinators. Pollinators are also an important food source for other animals, playing a key role in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

The buzz on honeybees

As honeybees gather pollen and nectar for their survival, they pollinate crops such as apples, cranberries, melons and broccoli. Some crops, including blueberries and cherries, are 90 percent dependent on honeybee pollination. Almonds depend entirely on the honeybee for pollination.

Honeybees are not our only source of pollinators. There are over 1,600 species of California native bees. None of them make honey or live in hives but are very important for California’s native plants and ecosystems. Sometimes our native bees are even better pollinators than honeybees.

Honeybees will fly a mile or two for attractive forage. Don’t worry if you don’t see them in early spring, because they don't consistently fly when temperatures are in mid-50's or lower. Native bees fly in lower temperatures and may pollinate fruit trees that honeybees ignore because they have less attractive pollen or nectar. 

Recipe for a pollinator garden

Now is the perfect time to plant a pollinator garden. Here are some recommendations from UC Marin Master Gardener and beekeeper Elsa Latini:

  • Choose a variety of plants that provide nectar and pollen from early spring to late fall.
  • Arrange plants in patches of one type to help catch the attention of bees in search of flowers.
  • Plant in sunny spaces.
  • Choose native plants (which tend to bloom in early spring and summer) and non-native plants (which tend to bloom mid-summer to late fall).
  • Provide a water source.
  • Provide shelter:  bird houses, native bee boards or boxes, trees, shrubs, grasses and weeds.
  • Leave bare ground for nesting bees and leaf litter for other insects.
  • Limit the use of all pesticides. Carefully follow the directions of low toxicity products.
  • Don’t worry if you don’t have expansive grounds. Even a small deck or window sill garden can be helpful for pollination.
    Honey bees gathering pollen from Oriental poppy. Photo: Jane Scurich
    Honey bees gathering pollen from Oriental poppy. Photo: Jane Scurich

Is beekeeping for you?

If learning about the need for bees inspires you to become a beekeeper, heed the advice of Sherrie Vigneron, UC Marin Master Gardener and Journeyman in the UC Davis Master Beekeeping Program.

“It is a fun hobby and harvesting the excess honey is a great edible reward, but responsible beekeeping is a lot of work. Hive mortality is very high these days. It is important to know that there are local and state regulations to follow.”

Regulations for beekeepers:

  • Some towns in Marin require permits and some don't allow it. 
  • The state of CA now requires everyone (commercial beekeepers and hobbyists) to register their hives. 
  • Hives need to be managed to minimize swarming, to not be a nuisance or sting hazard for neighbors, and to keep diseases from spreading. Marin does have American Foulbrood (AFB) disease which is highly contagious and deadly to bees. If a hive has this, it needs to be exterminated and equipment burned. There is concern that AFB will spread because people are not checking their hives for the disease.

For more information about bee keeping, research the San Francisco Bee Keepers Association and the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis.

Bee welcoming!

By Jane Scurich