Building habitat for bees

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Bees are critically important pollinators to support and protect. Along with other insects, bees are essential components of agriculture by pollinating fruits, vegetables and other crops.

Pollinator habitat is declining as a result of large-scale agriculture and urbanization. This trend destroys natural bee habitats like grasslands and prairies, replacing them with crops, lawns and impervious surfaces. While this is our reality, there are lots of things that each of us can do to build habitat for bees.

First, consider reducing the amount you mow. Mowing less means that flowering plants have the opportunity to establish and bloom, which provides more food for pollinators.

I also suggest getting comfortable with lawns looking a little higher and less kempt. The expectation that lawns be mowed short is a social/cultural construct, and it is worth considering how this concept serves us today.

One small way to challenge this is to only mow the areas that you really want to use. Another idea is to mow around areas in the lawn that have flowers growing. This will allow pollinators like bees to feed on them. You can cut that spot next week!

Postponing, or not mowing at all, around lawn areas with flowers in bloom will help create habitat and food for bees. Photos by Bonnie Kirn Donahue

Next, embrace weeds. Flowers like dandelions, clover, milkweed and goldenrod get a bad reputation as being “weeds” or a nuisance. In fact, weeds are just plants that are unwanted in a given area.

Native flowering plants, including milkweed, goldenrod and many others, provide important food sources and energy for native bees and insects. Allowing them to grow among other intentionally planted species is a great way to help out.

Planting native flowering plants is another way to support bees. Try to maximize the amount of time flowers are in bloom by selecting multiple species that flower from early spring to late autumn.

Another good idea is to grow plants with hollow stems. Plants such as goldenrod, Joe Pye weed, milkweed, elderberry and ornamental grasses have hollow, pithy stems that some bees use to lay eggs in to overwinter.

Plan ahead for autumn and test out leaving the dead stems and twigs of these plants and others through winter and cut them back the following spring. This practice will help baby bee larvae survive winter.

While some bees nest in hollow stems, others lay their eggs in the ground or in dead wood. Instead of clearing and manicuring our lawns and gardens completely of dead material, think about areas where you can leave dead wood, decaying leaves or even small areas of exposed soil.

Bees and other pollinators also need access to water. I like to place a shallow dish of water in my garden beds with a few rocks that rise just above the surface of the water for pollinators to perch on. Just like a bird bath, bees and other insects will be grateful for this local source of water.

A number of different species of flowers suitable for Northeast gardens, including the purple coneflower, provide important food sources and energy for native bees and insects.

You can buy or build bee houses to place near your garden. Check out this in-depth resource from University of Michigan Extension for more information:

Finally, to celebrate National Pollinator Week (June 17 – 23), consider learning more about bees and their preferred habitats. On June 22, a consortium of organizations and businesses called the Vermont Pollinator Working Group has planned a daylong event with expert presentations and resources on native bees and pollinator habitats at the University of Vermont Horticultural Research Center in South Burlington. Learn more at

Each of us can try little changes in our personal and community gardens to build and support bee and pollinator habitat. Which idea will you try out this year?

by Bonnie Kirn Donahue, Extension Master Gardener, UVM

Featured photo: The striking orange flowers of the butterfly weed attract many pollinators, including several species of bees. Photo by Bonnie Kirn Donahue

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