Updated: May 6, 2022
The snow has finally melted away and we're ready for warm days to start sticking our fingers into the dirt of our gardens! From our store window, our pollinator garden looks brown and drab, but on closer inspection I can see early signs of this season's flowers...the little red heads of peonies just poking out from the earth, the first green leaves of delphinium, tiny lupin leaves, and the first green shoots of sedum. After all, April showers bring May flowers!
Among this new spring growth, there is plenty of brown dead flowers that we've left as nesting places for native bees. Many species of bees (not honeybees) use the canes of dead flowers as a nesting place, laying eggs that will hatch in the spring. Likewise, other bee species will overwinter under piles of leaves. Soon, once the temperature warms up, the native bees will hatch and awaken from their winter sleep, and we can clean up the garden brush.
In this blog post, we will talk about how to start a Bee Friendly Garden this spring!
Tips for Bee Friendly Gardening
Let Nature Bee
Before rushing back into the garden (it's so hard, I know!!), it is important to wait until temperatures are constantly above 10°C to avoid disturbing any little bees and insects that are still hibernating in your flower stems. Unlike honey bees that live in a beehive, most bees spend the winter in the ground, trees, and flower stems. As the days warm, last year's bumblebee queens will awaken to start new colonies, and solitary bees like mason bees and leaf cutter bees will hatch from their cocoons. As shown in this image, many of these bees will hatch from cocoons built in little holes and hollow stems.
When we plant flowers in our garden, we always try to find neonic-free plants. Neonics, short for neonicotinoids, are a class of pesticides that are very harmful to bees. We are a pesticide and herbicide free farm to avoid harming our bees and other pollinators. Permethrin, the insecticide sometimes used by companies to control for mosquitoes, is also very harmful to bees.
Choose a variety of Bee-Friendly Flowers
All bees are different and Ontario is home to at least 400 different species! Some are teeny tiny, some have longer tongues, some like to snuggle deep in a flower and others like an easy perch! Here are just some of the bees that we have spotted here on our farm and that you might see in your garden.
Honeybees are the bees that we manage on our farm that produce honey. To learn more about these bees in the spring, check out our blog posts:
On our farm we also see leaf cutter bees, bumblebees, sweat bees, mason bees, and carpenter bees, in addition to a number of other bee species and species of wasps and hornets.
Leafcutter bees are interesting because they carry pollen on the bottom of their abdomen (on their tummy) instead of on their back legs the way honeybees do. They also cut little circles out of leaves that they use to build their nests...which is why they are called leafcutter bees. I most often spot these bees mid-summer visiting thistles that grow wild around the edges of our beeyard.
Bumble bees are the biggest bees, they live in nest about the size of a softball with about 20 bees. Sometimes they build their nests underground, in a wood pile, in an empty birdhouse, or an old mouse nest. Bumblebees can perform a special type of pollination called buzz pollination, where they vibrate their bodies at a frequency that dislodges pollen from the anther of flowers. This makes them very good at pollinating tomatoes. There are many different species of bumblebees in Ontario including the common eastern bumble bee and the orange banded bumble bee. If you enjoy spotting and identifying bumble bees in your garden, you can become a Citizen Scientist by reporting your sightings to Bumble Bee Watch.
The first time I discovered sweat bees, it was because a tiny little bee kept landing on my hand while I was gardening. It turns out sweat bees are attracted to perspiration and the salt on our skin, giving them the name sweat bee. Sweat bees can be yellow but there are also species that are iridescent green like this one:
Mason bees are solitary bees that are excellent pollinators of fruit trees, so much so that they are often known as orchard bees. They are smaller than honeybees and have longer antennae. These are solitary tunnel-nesting bees that lay their eggs inside existing tunnels, such as those left by wood-boring beetles or the hollow stems of pithy plants. You can build a home for mason bees by drilling holes into a piece of wood or assembling a bee hotel with hollow stems.
It is important to plant a variety of flowers of different sizes, shapes, and colours to help attract all kinds of bees to your garden! Here are just some examples of spring flowers for bees. We can also help the bees by putting up bee hotels, providing fresh water like garden ponds, bird baths, or in shallow bowls with rocks to perch, and growing your own fruits and vegetables or shop local to reduce food's carbon footprint.
Spring Flowers for Bees
Honey bees are not the only ones in search of nectar and pollen to grow their bee population in the spring! Emerging queen bumblebees, mason bees, and mining bees are also out foraging for food to feed the larvae that will become this year's worker bees. When starting a garden for bees and pollinators, we encourage people to plant a variety of flowers that bloom at different times to ensure our little bee friends have food from spring to fall! Here are some of our favourite spring flowers! For fall flowers, check out our blog post Fall Flowers for Bees.
Native plants are four times more attractive to natives bees than exotic flowers. You can plant Ontario native flowers like marsh marigold, black eyed susan, Canada anemone, bee balm, butterfly milkweed, purple coneflower, cardinal flower, and even wild strawberry! Here is a great list of Ontario Wildflowers that bloom in the spring. The Pollinator Partnership has also developed pollinator planting guides that are specific to Canada's various ecological regions. Here is the guide for Ottawa and the St. Lawrence Lowlands.
Bee Friendly Flowers
Are you thinking of starting a bee friendly garden? Here are some spring flowers that are perfect additions to your garden! Don't forget to plant summer flowers and fall flowers to ensure the bees have food year round!
These bell shaped flowers are a super fun and cute addition to your garden! Not only do they attract bees but other pollinators like hummingbirds! They can be found in different colours to add a beautiful array of colours to your garden!
These native flowers are among the first flowers we see peaking through in the spring! They can bloom as soon as March adding pops of purple in your garden.
This charming little flower can be see around mid-April here in Ontario. They can be spotted growing in the wild so keep an eye out!
Hyacinth are very nice flowers that are pretty easy to find in the store! These pretty and fun flowers will bloom in late May.