10 Tips for Keeping Bees (without Becoming a Beekeeper)
Beekeeping is all the rage lately. The majority of the top-selling books in the homesteading category on Amazon.com are beekeeping books. If chickens are the gateway livestock, then bees are quite easily one of the next few stops along the path to self-sufficiency. But not everyone feels confident enough to don a suit and start messing with a bee colony. Not only that, buying the hives and requisite equipment requires a bit of an investment, as does the time caring for and maintaining the hive and collecting the honey.
Beekeeping isn't a venture you should dive into without any previous knowledge or research. Queen bees die, colonies can starve over the winter, bears ransack the hives looking for honey... in short, stuff happens.
But inarguably, the bee population is in trouble - and without bees, we literally wouldn't have any food. If plant and tree flowers don't get pollinated, fruits and vegetables don't form. The overuse of pesticides, lawn treatments, herbicides and all sorts of environmental toxins have wreaked havoc on bees, as well as other inhabitants of nature. Colony collapse disorder has brought the number of honey bees down by more than half over the last 25 years.
Consider Native Bees
However, native bees, who live solitary lives not in hives, are proving to be hardier than honey bees - and with over 4,000 species worldwide, they're found pretty much everywhere.
So if you want to help the bees and encourage them to frequent your yard and help pollinate your plants, why not focus on attracting some of the native bee species? Native bees might not make honey (okay, that is a bit of a bummer because local honey is the best!), but they will pollinate your plants.
Not only that, while honey bees can be aggressive when protecting their hives, solitary native bees don't have hives to protect, so they tend to be more docile and far less likely to sting. (But any bee will likely sting if you step on it, or if it gets caught in your clothes or hair.)
Mason bees are one type of native bee to consider. Mason bees are superior pollinators, far more efficient than honey bees are. They are more cold-hardy than honey bees and work on rainy days and other days that honey bees often take off. Mason bee houses are available commercially (you can buy this cute one from amazon.com in fact!), and often putting up a house is all you need to do in order to attract the bees to it. Or simple tying a bundle of regular paper drinking straws or tubular sticks such as bamboo and hanging them in your garden for the mason bees to lay their eggs in can work too.
There are lots of other simple, inexpensive ways to encourage native bees to your yard. And as an added bonus, by helping to sustain the native bees in your area, you will also be providing food and a beneficial environment for any honey bees your neighbors keep might be keeping who come calling. Here are my top ten tips for attracting and keeping native bees. And you don't even need a bee suit!
Top Ten Tips for Keeping Bees (without becoming a beekeeper)
Plant native flowers
Logically, native bees will be attracted to native flowers. Planting native flowers not only in your flower beds, but near your vegetable garden and in other spots around your property give the bees a veritable buffet to choose from. Watch which flowers seem to attract the most bees and plant more of them.
Don't use pesticides
Pesticides in general aren't good for your garden or your family anyway. They kill good bugs as well as the pests, and they can be harmful to bees as well as other pollinators like butterflies. If you do need to use something to control garden pests, try to apply it near the base of the plant, not near the flowers where the bees congregate. And remember that even so-called natural pesticides, such as DE (diatomaceous earth) can be harmful to bees, so be cautious where, when and how you use them. Become knowledgeable about good bugs versus bad bugs and be sure to leave the good guys alone to battle the pests for you.
Don't use herbicides
Herbicides, whether applied to your lawn or in the garden to control weeds, can be harmful to the bees as well. Instead of using Round-up or other commercial product, instead consider a natural non-toxic weed control method. Hand pulling is about the cheapest and easiest way to control weeds - and perfectly safe for the bees and our environment.
Put up a mason bee house
As mentioned above, mason bees are a great garden companion and easy keepers. Put a bee house in a shady spot near your garden and wait for the bees to find it. Or purchase some mason bees to get a jump start. Once you see the mud covering some of the holes in the tubes, you'll know you've got bees laying eggs in it.
Provide the bees a place to get a drink
If you have a birdbath in your yard or garden, consider putting a large rock in it so the bees can perch on them to take a drink. A dripping faucet will offer bees a place to drink, as will a small dish with some stones in it.
Plant three-season gardens
Helen Yoest, author of Gardening with Confidence and Plants with Benefits, and also the Director of Bee Better, suggests growing plants that keeps the bees coming, and not just during the peak of summer. Plant so that bees have a nectar and pollen source year round particularly in the spring and fall.
Here are some seasonal suggestions that bees love: Spring – lilacs, lavender, sage, verbena, and wisteria. Summer – mint, cosmos, squash, tomatoes, pumpkins, sunflowers, poppies, black-eyed Susan, honeysuckle. Fall – fuschia, bush sunflower, sage, verbena. Source: Ten things you can do to help bees
Keep some areas clear of mulch, plants or other debris. Many native bees are ground dwellers.
70% of native bees nest in the ground. They burrow underground and set up housekeeping, making a mound in the dirt that looks almost like an ant hill. So before you grab the ant killer, be sure it's not a bee that's making a home in the dirt. And while you're at it, let the ants be. Much as they might be unwanted guests in your kitchen or picnic, they are actually great at aerating soil..and they also work to pollinate plants just like bees do!
Let your herbs go to flower
Thyme, dill, basil, oregano and rosemary not only enhance our cooking, but their flowers are beautiful - and the bees love them. Let some of your herb plants go to flower to provide the bees even more variety to choose from. Just be aware, the herbs can get bitter-tasting if you harvest them after the plants have gone to flower, so do your harvesting early and then let your herbs bloom.
Let the weeds take over your lawn
Native bees in particular are good clover pollinators. Bees also love dandelion flowers, so don't look at the weeds as 'weeds' any longer, they're wonderful bee food! So don't mow quite as often, allowing the weeds a chance to prosper.
Think about making your 'lawn' smaller and open field or pasture areas larger, letting weeds and wildflowers grow.
You'll make it easier on yourself and your lawnmower if you gradually reduce the amount of 'lawn' you have and increase the amount of open field. Let the weeds and wildflowers take over as much of your property as you can, leaving just a small traditional yard around your house. The pollinators will love the wildflowers that pop up, and the birds will love the other insects that are attracted to the unkempt areas. Wild turkeys, rabbits and deer will also enjoy foraging.
And a bonus tip from Helen Yoest, Director of Bee Better: Joe Pye Weed is a GREAT native wildlife plant. The foliage is used as a host plant for many moths and caterpillars, the flowers provide nectar and honey, and the winter dieback is the right size for many of the native bees to build their nest. As such, we have to remember to not be so tidy in the fall. Leave some plants standing for the next generation of bees!
I owe a thank you to Helen for educating me on native bees. For more information on attracting native bees and growing wildflowers, contact Helen Yoest, Director of BeeBetter or visit her website Bee Better. Bee Better is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to build better backyards for birds, bees, and butterflies. You can also find them on Facebook and Twitter.