There are more than 4,000 species of native bees in North America, and while supporting European honeybees is important, helping our native population is even more so. Pollinators are responsible for more than 20 billion dollars of food crops each year, and many species are suffering from population declines due to pesticide exposure, disease, and habitat loss. Even urban gardeners with small patio gardens or containers can provide important habitat for these insects.
If every homeowner and apartment dweller built a pollinator garden like this one, what a huge difference we’d make!
Build Your Bee Dwelling
- 31-gallon galvanized trash can
- 5-gallon bucket
- 1 piece untreated 2-by-4 lumber, 4 to 5 feet long
- Enough 50/50 potting soil and compost blend to fill the trash can
- 8 to 12 pollinator-friendly plants, selected from “Best Host Plants for Bees,” below
- 1 brick
- 3 pieces 2-by-6 lumber, 18 inches long (cedar, redwood, or another untreated wood is best)
- Wood glue
- Piece of burlap, approximately 1-by-3 feet
- 30 to 50 natural bamboo garden stakes, 2 to 3 feet long
- Small roll of aluminum hobby wire
- Roll of natural jute twine
- Scratch awl
- Cordless drill with 5/16-inch and 7/16-inch twist bits
- Pruning shears
- Wire cutter
Create Container & Plant Garden
Step 1: Flip the trash can upside down, and hammer the awl through the bottom of the can in 8 to 10 places to create drainage holes. Turn the can back over, and place it where it will receive eastern or southeastern sun exposure on its front.
Step 2: Place an upturned, empty 5-gallon bucket in the bottom of the trash can. This will fill up some of the space and reduce the amount of potting soil and compost blend you’ll need.
Step 3: Stick one end of the 2-by-4 down into the can, propping it vertically between the 5-gallon bucket and the wall of the trash can. Fill the can 3⁄4 of the way to the top with the potting soil blend, straightening the 2-by-4 as you go, if necessary.
Step 4: Carefully slide your plants out of their pots and arrange them in the can, keeping the taller plants closest to the 2-by-4 and the shorter plants along the outer edge of the can. Once happy with the placement of the plants, loosen any pot-bound roots and fill the spaces between the plants with more potting mix until the container is filled to within an inch of the top. Leave a small, empty space somewhere close to the front edge of the can. Lay the brick in this space.
Create Pollinator Habitat
Step 5: Build a bee nesting block by gluing the 3 pieces of 2-by-6-inch lumber together with wood glue. Allow the glue to dry for several hours, then drill holes into one cut end of the blocks, perpendicular to the wood grain.
To encourage diversity, alternate hole sizes by using both the 5/16-inch and the 7/16-inch drill bits to make holes approximately 4 to 5 inches deep, spaced about 3⁄4-inch apart all over the face of the wood. Do not drill all the way through the block, as bees prefer to nest in closed-end tunnels. Place the drilled nesting block on top of the brick positioned among the plants. Make sure the holes are not blocked by any vegetation.
Step 6: Next, lay the piece of burlap on the ground and place the bundle of bamboo stakes in the center of it. Use a pair of sharp pruners to cut the stakes to approximately 2 feet in length if they aren’t already. Use the wire cutters to cut two 18-inch-long pieces of aluminum hobby wire. Wrap the wire around the bamboo stakes, one close to each end, to fasten them into a secure bundle. Roll the burlap around the center of the bundle and use a piece of natural jute twine to secure it in place.
Step 7: Fasten the burlap-wrapped bundle of bamboo stakes to the top of the 2-by-4, using more jute twine. Make sure the stakes are parallel to the ground and fairly level. If any of the cut ends of the bamboo pieces are blocked with dried bamboo pulp, use the awl to clear out the debris to give the bees better access.
Care for Your New Garden
Step 8: Care for your new pollinator garden by watering the plants regularly. When winter arrives, do not cut the plants back or otherwise disturb them. Some species of native bees may take shelter in the plant debris for the winter. Instead, do your cleanup when spring arrives and the weather is consistently warm. By then, the bees will have emerged from their overwintering sites. You can also replace any plants that didn’t make it through the winter at that time.
Step 9: You’ll know the bees are using your nesting sites when the ends of the openings are sealed over with mud or plant debris. To prevent pathogens and predators from taking over your nesting sites, replace the wood nesting block and bamboo stakes every two years in the early summer, after the young bees have emerged and before new eggs are laid.
By giving bees and other insects this nesting option, you’ll play a simple but vital role in protecting the native population. And your thriving garden will repay you for the help!
Best Host Plants for Bees
- Aster (Aster spp.)
- Bee balm (Monarda spp.)
- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.)
- Blazing star (Liatris spp.)
- Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
- Coneflower (Echinacea spp.)
- Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
- Dill (Anethum graveolens)
- Giant hyssop (Agastache spp.)
- Globe thistle (Echinops spp.)
- Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)
- Lacy phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia)
- Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba)
- Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)
- Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum spp.)
- Nepeta (Nepeta spp.)
- Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
- Penstemon (Penstemon spp.)
- Sage (Salvia spp.)
- Sunflower (Helianthus spp.)
- Tickseed (Coreopsis spp.)
Project excerpted with permission from Container Gardening Complete: Creative Projects for Growing Vegetables and Flowers in Small Spaces by Jessica Walliser. Published by Cool Springs Press, an imprint of The Quarto Group, 2017.