by Melynda Harrison – You’ve probably heard about the plight of bees. We need them for their pollination skills –one out of every three bites of food comes from plants pollinated by bees—but numbers of bees are on the decline. According the EPA, one of the factors causing the decline is lack of nutrition due to habitat loss. The good news is that we can all help restore pollinator habitat and we can involve our kids in the process by creating a pollinator garden.
Planting a pollinator garden will bring beauty to your home, encourage kids to care for the environment, and provide a valuable resource for learning about biology and ecology. And it’s good for bees. Grab your kid-sized gardening tools, native plant seeds, and mud-loving kid and start planting a pollinator garden just for bees and other pollinators.
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What Bees Need From a Pollinator Garden
You don’t need a lot of space for a pollinator garden; some pots or buckets filled with flowers will do. If you do have space, you can plant a wider variety of plants and attract a diversity of pollinators. Plus, you’ll have a colorful yard to enjoy with your family.
Important Food For a Pollinator Garden
First, think about what pollinators need—good food. Adult pollinators usually eat nectar from flowers, but their larvae generally need leaves. You’ll also want to plant a variety so something is always in bloom.
It’s best to plant a mix of native blooms to lure in pollinators. Native insects are adapted to native plants, of course, but there are other benefits. Native plants will take less work—they are suited to your environment—and less work is always a good thing when you have kids.
Plant the same species flowers in clumps. Pollinators will be more attracted to a four-foot clump of flowers than blooms dispersed throughout the pollinator garden. Plus, it’s easy for your child to stand in one place and scatter seeds.
Don’t use pesticides or herbicides in or near your pollinator garden. Chemicals designed to kill pests kill pollinators, too. Even organic or natural pesticides. Herbicides can kill plants that provide food for pollinators. Like Darwin, think “survival of the fittest.” Start with a diversity of plants and if a particular species isn’t fairing well, replace it with something hardier.
Plants to Include in a Pollinator Garden
Bees are attracted to blue, purple, yellow, and white native flowers. Show your child pictures of flowers and let them choose some of the plants.
This is a short list of bee-friendly plants. You can also get advice from your local Native Plant Society or nursery.
- Bee balm
- Black-eyed Susan
- Wild rose
Water Is Vital in a Pollinator Garden
In addition to food, pollinators need water. A small tray, shallow pools, and mud puddles are ideal. Just be sure they are kept moist all summer long.
How To Make A Bee Hotel
After food and water, shelter is the next most important need for bees. Not all bees live socially, some are solitary, so you don’t need a whole hive. An added bonus is that solitary bees are not aggressive. Unless you squish them or step on them, they usually won’t sting. Even when they are provoked to sting, it doesn’t hurt like a bumblebee or wasp sting.
Bee houses only provide nesting sites for a small number of bee species, but it is interesting and educational to watch bees using them. Of course, you can buy a bee hotel, but most of them are double and even triple the cost of a DIY version, and sadly many of them are inadequate. So, why not make an afternoon of it with the kids and bask in the awesome feeling of accomplishment.
Bees don’t need a lot in terms of shelter: leave cut plant stems exposed, keep a small mud puddle wet, turn over a flowerpot and let them fly in and out of the drainage holes, or leave small piles of twigs around the yard.
If you are looking for a fun project that is a bit more involved than an upside down flowerpot, you and your junior gardener can build a bee hotel.
The best part of a DIY bee hotel is that you can use recycled wood and logs, which makes this outdoor project even more affordable.
Bee Hotel Building Materials:
- A Wooden Box
- A Sloped Roof + Overhang
- Wood blocks or small logs to fill
- A Drill
- 3-1/4 Inch Nails
Bee Hotel Project Instructions:
The Box – To begin your bee hotel project, find or build a three-sided wooden box and a sloped roof with overhang to ensure the rain can drain off properly. Your bee hotel should be a minimum of 8 inches (20 cm) deep, 12 inches (30 cm) high, and 12 inches wide. When it comes to the dimension of your bee hotel, general consensus is the smaller the better. Composite woods like hardboard, chipboard or particleboard are not suitable, as they disintegrate in the rain.
The Filling – Your bee hotel “rooms” are nothing more than blocks of wood or small logs into which you have drilled small holes. You may also fill portions of the frame with small-diameter pieces of bamboo or hollow reeds. Solitary bees, like mason bees, leafcutter bees, and carder bees, will use these tunnels as nest sites. Drill holes into your wood blocks in varying diameters, between a minimum of 2 millimeters and maximum of 10 millimeters. Make sure not to drill the hole all the way through to the opposite side, bees prefer a closed end tunnel.
Smoothing It Out – Once you have finished drilling your holes, carefully smooth each tunnel’s entrance and cavity, making sure they are free of splinters and any sawdust. This is very important because splintered wood particles and sawdust can easily damage their wings.
The Perfect Spot – The perfect garden spot for your bee hotel is one that is positioned in full sun, facing south east or south, and at least three and a half feet (1 meter) off the ground. Remember, bees are cold-blooded and rely on the sun’s warmth in the morning. The entrance should be free of vegetation. If it’s hidden in a shady spot behind your prize petunias, chances are bees won’t use it.
The Finishing Touches – You can treat the exterior of the completed bee house with a water-based varnish or fence paint if you wish, but stay away from solvent-based wood treatment products. Their strong odor will only deter bees. Also, make sure your bee hotel is firmly fixed to a solid surface, be it a pole, fence, or wall, so it doesn’t swing or sway in the wind.
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A Pollinator Garden and the Hive Mind
Once you and your kids have planted a pollinator garden and welcomed bees to eat, drink, and shelter in your yard, encourage your neighbors to do the same. By extending pollinator habitats, your kids and neighbors can be an active part of the solution to bringing back bees.
Pollinator Garden Resources
Bee Pollination from the USDA.
Melynda Harrison is contributing editor to Outdoor Families Magazine and writes for numerous publications including Big Sky Journal and Montana Parent. Her company YellowstoneTrips.com, specializing in Yellowstone travel. Currently, she is traveling through Europe with her family. Learn more at travelingmel.com, on YouTube, and Instagram.