6 Tips for Planting a Bee-Friendly Garden in North Carolina
photograph by U.S. Department of Agriculture

Watching bees buzz around the garden is not just proof that spring has arrived; it’s a sign that important work is happening.

Bees are pollinators. In the process of gathering nectar from flowers, bees spread pollen, which is essential for producing some of our favorite foods. Without bees, there would be no cocoa, coffee, blueberries, avocados, Brazil nuts, or countless other delicious and nutritious foods.

North Carolina is home to more than 500 native bee species — and they’re at risk. Bee populations have plummeted by upwards of 30 percent across various regions in North America and Europe. While the situation is troubling, you can take action in the garden to support bees.

Here are seven ideas to help you protect bees:

1. Garden with native plants
Native plants are those that are indigenous to a specific region and adapted to its growing conditions. In North Carolina, species like purple coneflower, bee balm, great blue lobelia, and goldenrod thrive in gardens and provide food and habitat for native pollinators.

Debbie Roos, an extension agent at the
Chatham County Center of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, planted more than 190 native species in the “Pollinator Paradise” demonstration garden she created in Pittsboro to showcase the beauty of North Carolina native plants.

“You’re not sacrificing beauty when you choose native plants,” she says.

Roos maintains a list of her top 25 native plants at CarolinaPollinatorGarden.org.

The nonprofit Pollinator Partnership also publishes regional planting guides on its website. Enter your zip code to access a comprehensive list of pollinator-friendly native plants specific to your region.

2. Choose the best colors
When it comes to foraging, bees and other pollinators have color preferences.

One study found that certain colonies of buff-tailed bumblebees prefer violet-colored flowers the most. It appears that flowers in this cool hue produce far more nectar than flowers of other colors, allowing bees to harvest more from these blooms.

When choosing native plants, keep their color in mind and choose purple and blue when you can (but remember that bees will gather nectar from flowers in all of the other shades of the rainbow, too).

3. Plant for all seasons
A garden that blooms in spring, summer, and fall is beautiful and productive. Pollinators depend on continual blooms for habitat and food and will suffer in a garden that blooms beautifully in spring but goes dormant when summer is over.

Roos recommends planting at least three to five species that bloom in each season. Virginia spiderwort, wild indigo, and foxglove beardtongue are good options for spring. St. John’s wort, buttonbush, and mountain mint bloom all summer long. Meanwhile, spotted horsemint, aster, and joe-pye weed are great fall bloomers.

“Having more than one species blooming in every season attracts a diversity of pollinators to your garden,” she says.

4. Install housing
Most pollinators depend on plants for habitat. Some bees, like mason bees, will build nesting sites in insect holes and hollow stems. These so-called cavity dwellers will also move into bee houses made from bamboo reeds, holes drilled in wooden blocks, and other creative cavities you provide.

You can buy mason bee houses at garden supply stores. The National Wildlife Federation also has instructions for DIY versions.

Your bee hotel should be hung on a post facing east or southeast. A western exposure will leave the bees baking in the afternoon sun, Roos says.

“Our bees are losing habitat,” Roos says. “A bee hotel is a way to help you provide habitat and invite important pollinators into your yard.”

5. Set up a bee bath
Spreading pollen and gathering nectar can make bees work up a thirst. A “bee bath” gives bees a place to get fresh, clean water.

Fill a shallow container with water and several pebbles or twigs for bees to land on (and keep from drowning) while drinking. Make sure to keep the container filled with fresh water so the bees have a reliable source of drinking water.

6. Steer clear of chemicals
Pesticides are designed to kill insects — lest we forget that many pollinators, including bees, are insects. In fact, researchers at Harvard University linked colony collapse disorder, the inexplicable death and disappearance of honeybees from their hives, to a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.

“Part of caring for pollinators is being careful about the products you use in the garden,” Roos says.

Avoiding chemicals is the best approach, but if pesticides are needed, Roos advises not spraying plants that are in bloom and regularly visited by pollinators. Applying pest control in the evenings gives residues a chance to dissipate before bees make their morning rounds.

7. Get certified
You can demonstrate your commitment to pollinators by getting your garden certified.

Penn State University offers Pollinator Garden Certification and the Pollinator Partnership offers the Bee Friendly Garden certification program. For a small fee — which supports pollinator protection — you’ll get a sign for your garden that lets the neighbors know you’re making a conscious effort to protect bees and other pollinators. It might just encourage them to take action, too.

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Jodi Helmer is a freelance writer based in Charlotte.