To Bee or Not to Bee

Welcoming bees into our hearts and gardens

by Debbie Ballentine

long-horned bees

Male long-horned bees sleep in groups. Photo by Debbie Ballentine.

European honeybees were my first insect love affair at the age of 8. They don’t have big brains, but they communicate with each other and work towards a common cause. This seemed otherworldly to me as a young girl. Over time native bees and pollinators took the place of honeybees in my heart. (Sorry Apis mellifera, I was only 8.) I’m far from an expert, yet I delight in these pollinators. This drives me to learn and share what I learn.

Pollinators… who are they and what do they need

Although we might not think about it much, pollinators provide important services to humans and the ecosystem. They are critical to the survival of plants, animals and humankind. The European honeybee alone is responsible for pollinating more than a third of the food we eat. Most people are aware of the honeybee crisis, but honeybees aren’t the only ones in trouble. Other pollinators are in decline including butterflies, moths and native bees. The largest negative impact on pollinators is from habitat loss, habitat fragmentation and degradation, and pesticides. I believe we have the knowledge and resources to help pollinators. In my mind even the smallest home garden can play a role in our efforts to maintain pollinator populations.

Honey bee and spider

Insects are central to the health of natural communities. Spider with honeybee in Dark Star Ceanothus. Photo by Debbie Ballentine.

Insects that provide pollination services include flies, wasps, butterflies, moths, beetles, honeybees and native bees. A habitat garden for pollinators needs water, food in the form of nectar and pollen, and bare dirt without mulch for ground nesting native bees. All habitat gardens need to be pesticide-free.

I know I hardly even brushed the subject. There is far more to know about pollinators and how to create a pollinator habitat. For now, I’d like move to the bees and the California native plants they love. For those who want more detail on pollinator habitat gardens there is plenty of information available. I’ve provided some resources at the end of this article.

The bees and the plants

In December the University of Texas at Austin and the University of California, Berkeley released a study on a California native bumblebee, Bombus vosnesenskii. Along with learning that pavement in urban and suburban areas negatively affect these ground nesting bees, they also learned that bumblebees prefer diversity above all. At the U.T. Austin website, Shalene Jha, assistant professor in Integrative Biology, says, “In some ways, it’s a bet-hedging strategy. If the landscape is composed of consistently dense flowering patches, bees take a risk and forage farther afield to find species-rich patches.”  The study shows that: A) bumblebees will go longer distances for patches of flowers that are rich in species, and B) bumblebees will forage further away from their nest if the surrounding area is less heterogeneous.

Bees on Arroyo Lupine

Carpenter bee, bumblebee and Arroyo Lupine (Lupinus succulentus). Photo by Debbie Ballentine.

The Xerces Society also advocates a diversity of plants. They say that pollinators need both diversity and blocks of color. In their view the ideal garden has:

  • Diversity; several different plant species flowering at the same time
  • More diversity; a combination of flowering annuals and perennials
  • Even more diversity; Different flower sizes, shapes and colors
  • Blocks of color; groups of at least 3-5 plants of the same species and flower color
  • Year-round food; flowering plants in all growing seasons

The U.C. Berkeley Urban Bee Project has been studying honeybees and native bees since the early 1990’s. They count bees at specific sites in California and collect the data. Their website shares their many insights. At the website you’ll find lots of examples of native bees. There are some 1600 species of native bees in California, and over 80 species in the San Francisco bay area alone. This diversity of bees includes bumblebees, carpenter bees, mason bees, long-horned bees, sweat bees, leafcutter bees, digger bees, mining bees, and others.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Gordon Frankie of the Urban Bee Project. A tour was scheduled of the bee garden near the U.C. campus. That day it rained hard, and the tour was cancelled at the last minute. While the hatchback door of his car protected us from the downpour, Dr. Frankie showed us photos of California native bees and talked about the plants bees love best. In the short time we talked I learned one important thing… although native bees adore certain species of exotic plants, they prefer California native plants four to one. And that makes perfect sense to me. After all, our local native wildlife evolved with local native plants.

When it comes to native plants, the Aster family is extremely important to many pollinators. (You know…  all those flowers that look like daisies.) The composite flower is the trick. That is, what we see as one single flower is actually many flowers on one disc. In my garden, Coast Sunflower of the Aster family provides pollen and nectar, and has a very long bloom season. If there are flowers on my Coast Sunflower and the weather is warmish then the plant is swarming with pollinators. Hey, for a bee it’s easier to hang out and feed on one disc of many flowers than it is to constantly fly from one flower to another flower.

Buckwheats (Eriogonum spp.) are another important group for bees for a different reason. Most buckwheats bloom in the summer when many other California natives are dormant. This is an advantage for bees – and for humans. One time I was in a landscape designer’s office. She had posted on her wall “When in doubt, use buckwheat”. I laughed but it’s true. There are many species of buckwheat, they do well in gardens, they are beautiful summer bloomers, and they are a favorite of pollinators.

Of the many California native plants to choose, the Urban Bee Project highly recommends the following.

  • Birds Eye Gilia (Gilia tricolor)
  • Blazing Star (Mentzelia lindleyi)
  • California Gilia, Blue Gilia (Gilia achilleifolia)
  • California Hedgenettle (Stachys bullata)
  • California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
  • Ceanothus spp.
  • Chinese houses  (Collinsia heterophylla)
  • Coyote Mint (Monardella villosa)
  • Elegant Madia (Madia elegans)
  • Globe Gilia (Gilia capitata spp. capitata)
  • Gumplant (Grindelia spp.)
  • Hooker Evening Primrose (Oenothera elata ssp. Hookeri)
  • Large-flowered Phacelia (Phacelia grandiflora)
  • Naked Buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum)
  • Ocean Spray (Holodiscus discolor)
  • Pt. Reyes Horkelia (Horkelia marinensis)
  • Rigid Hedgenettle (Stachys ajugoides spp. rigida)
  • Rosy or Red Buckwheat, San Miguel Island Buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens)
  • Slender Sunflower (Helianthus gracilentus)
  • Sneezeweed (Helenium puberulum)
  • Sunflower and cultivars (Helianthus annuus and H. annuus cultivars)
  • Tansy Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia)
  • Woolly Blue Curls (Trichostema lanatum)

I enjoy the different timbres, pitches and intensities of insects all a-buzz. Tiny bees too fast and small to identify, medium sized bees that stop for a sip so you can get a look, and huge carpenter bees you can see from the neighbor’s yard – they are all part of the daily nectar party in my garden. The most popular plants with the pollinators in my garden are Coast Sunflower (Encelia californica), California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica), Tansy Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia), Bee Plant (Scrophularia californica), Dark Star Ceanothus, Birds Eye Gilia (Gilia tricolor), California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum foliolosum), Chaparral Mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus), Dara’s Choice Salvia, and Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia).

To Bee or Not to Bee… for me, there is no question.

Erigeron glaucus

The many flowers in the central disc can be seen on this Seaside Daisy (Erigeron glaucus). Photo by Debbie Ballentine.

Further Reading and Resources

Debbie BallentineDebbie Ballentine studied landscape design and horticulture at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California. Her greatest joy is to increase the understanding of California native plants, sustainable practices and wildlife gardening through her writing, speaking and photography. She writes a monthly column for Out & About Magazine, Silicon Valley, and has a California native plant blog at

One thought on “To Bee or Not to Bee

  1. It is so nice to see the growing interest on pollinators! Now, if there were some good guides that specifically concentrate on flower visitors, that would be helpful. This is why I wrote a simple guide to the most common ones. The Beginners Guide to Pollinators and Other Flower Visitors should be useful to young people and those who want to learn a little about the insects they see around flowers.
    It is available at iTunes and Barnes & Noble: Barnes & Noble (

Leave a Reply to Pollinator Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s