To Bee or Not to Bee

Ten days ago, I had the great pleasure of attending a workshop, "Bringing your Garden to Life with Native Plants, Pollinators, and Birds". The workshop had been organized by Acterra, a Bay Area environmental organization with a variety of excellent programs.

I was impressed by the large turnout, the enthusiasm of the staff and the attendees, and the speakers (and the snacks were great, too). My favorite was a presentation by Jaime Pawelek, who works with the Urban Bee Garden project, part of UC Berkeley.

Jaime first talked about her research, which involves visiting gardens throughout the greater Bay Area and performing bee counts. And the result? I quote: "just in the East Bay cities of Albany and Berkeley 81 species of bees have been identified from residential neighborhoods." That really blew me away. I'm pretty sure I have maybe 10 different species of bees in my garden, but 81?

So I paid close attention to the next part of Jaime's talk, which was about attracting bees. Here's what she says (and I summarize, see the Urban Bee Garden Project for more):
  • Don't use pesticides, herbicides, insecticidal soaps, or other nasty chemicals.
  • You'll need plants with pollen and plants with nectar.
  • Native bees prefer natives, but consider some exotics to make sure there's food year round.
  • Leave some ground uncovered. Many native bees nest in the ground and can't get through the mulch.

Of course, that really made me think, and do more research. Among others, I came across the "In the Key of Bee" article of Bay Nature Magazine (Do click on the link, if only to see the green (!) sweat bee.)

I find that my garden is bee friendly because I don't use pesticides, and I do plant a lot of natives. But I'm not sure I have enough variety of blooming plants in summer and fall. And, worse than that, I have wood chips everywhere.

To improve bee friendliness, I'm going to plant some additional annuals. I just sent an order to Larner's Seeds, and was pleased to find that their order forms have a little pollinator icon (a bee) next to plants that are especially bee friendly. With some advice from Country Mouse, I hope to grow plants from these seeds and have happier bees. I might later spend more time with the handy lists on the Urban Bee Garden project's web site. I like those lists because they're tailored to California Gardens, though other useful sites (and lists) are easy to find (see, for example,

I'll start moving some of the wood chips from the sunny chaparral areas to the redwood habitat. The sunny areas don't need the chips to hold water in because they don't get watered much. In fact, they might prefer to be chipless so they can dry out in winter. The redwood area can use mulch, and is covered with bark and needles even in nature. I'll keep the fruit trees mulched, but I'll create some mulch-free islands in which I can sow annuals. And, with luck, I'll find some bee's nests. It's a tentative plan, but an interesting project.

Before I get too distracted, I should mention that Jaime ended her talk with a slide show of different bees. Kind of the Victoria's Secrets fashion show slides for the wildlife gardener. We were all spellbound by the beauty and variety of the creatures she showed -- and all photographed in perfectly ordinary suburban gardens. Below, a final photo from my own garden, taken this spring. Will I have a green bee to show next year?


Christine said…
You're probably already aware of these books, but I found them particularly helpful: Pollinator Conservation Handbook by the Xerxes Society and California Insects by Powell & Hogue (which is what I reach for first to identify something new.) Also, I found that Eriogonum giganteum gets small native bees flocking and it blooms quite late in the season. Thanks for highlighting bee gardening!
Country Mouse said…
I just happen to have 5 or 6 gal pots of eriogonum giganteum propagated from seeds and ready to plop in the ground, if you'd like one or two, Ms Town. They can grow to fill quite a large space after the first year or two - mine in the ground are very woody and shrubby now - about 4X4 feet or so maybe wider. Very attractive plant and drought tolerant. Mine have their flower/seed heads turning a lovely russet brown now, from masses of white flat umbels in summer.
Christine said…
And as if County Mouse hasn't sung the praises enough already, they are amazing cut flowers and can be stuck in a vase for a month!
Town Mouse said…
Alas, giganteum grows to proportions my suburban garden can't handle. I have one in the front garden right now, but will take it out when the Toyon behind it has matured a bit more.

Fortunately, I have several other eriogonums (grande rubescens, fasciculatum, etc) that are better fits for a Town Mouse garden
Country Mouse said…
Oh too bad - I do envy you your E. grande rubescens though. Deer munch it. I could put some in the fenced off pool area though - what a good idea!
Emily said…
oh thanks! I've got these bookmarked for when the back garden gets overhauled this spring. I do <3 the little bees!
Kelly said…
Hey! I was there too! My husband (tall guy with big mustache) and I sat up in the front row off to the right in our Stanford gear (the game was the next thing on our agenda for the day). I couldn't recognize you from your profile picture. I thought it was a great talk!
Beth said…
Hello - Beth from Bay Nature here and I wanted to say thanks for the kinds words about "In the Key of Bee." Pollinator is a great resource as well and Larner's Seeds. Great topic for a post!
Gail said…
it sounds like a great talk! I have a very bee friendly environment, but think that I need to plant more annuals, too. This year the zinnias didn't germinate and that left a huge hole in the nectar supply. gail
Everyone seems to think that attracting insects is all about pretty butterflies, but it's great to pay attention to the bees. I haven't inventoried all the bees I have, but I've seen quite a few. They love the baccharis, but also spend a lot of time visiting non-native sages.