How to protect bees in my yard and garden

Many people are concerned about bees and other pollinators. Here are some simple precautions you can take to keep your yard bee-friendly.

A native sweat bee feeding on pollen. Photo credit: Noah Fram-Schwartz
A native sweat bee feeding on pollen. Photo credit: Noah Fram-Schwartz

Most people don’t realize that we have over 100 different species of native bees that are important for pollinating native plants and the ornamental plants in your yard and garden. These native bees and other insects that pollinate plants are just as important as the better-recognized honey bees and bumble bees.

All of the pollinators are susceptible to insecticides if they come in contact with them, on the surface of flower petals, or when consuming nectar or pollen. The most important thing that you can do to protect pollinators is to avoid spraying open flowers with any insecticide. The exception is B.t. (Bacillus thuringiensis), however, B.t. is only effective against caterpillars, and does not work to control other types of plant pests.

Horticultural oil and insecticidal soap are effective on most soft-bodied insects and can be used on cool mornings (less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit), after sunset, or at any time that bees are not present. The soap and oil residue is not harmful to bees, but spraying them directly is. Soap and oil can cause some plant injury, especially to open flowers, so do not exceed the rate given on the product label. Plants that need to be protected against damaging insects by using a broad-spectrum insecticide should be sprayed after petal-fall (after the plant is done blooming), or after removing the flowers.

Some other ways to encourage and protect pollinators are:

  • Encouraging or planting flowering plants to provide blooms throughout the growing season.
  • Allowing access to clean water.
  • Providing nest-building materials, including mud and waxy leaved plants.
  • Minimizing insecticide use or switching to more bee-friendly pesticides.
  • Avoiding systemic insecticides as a soil-drench around the base of flowers, trees or shrubs that are attractive to bees.
  • If an insecticide is applied to your lawn for grub control, mow your lawn first so there are no weed flowers present when it is applied (sprayed or spread).

For more information on identifying and encouraging pollinators, see the Michigan State University Extension bulletin on “Native Bees and Their Conservation on Farmland”’ by Rufus Isaacs and Julianna Tuell (Wilson).

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