suburban garden
They're the Bees Knees!
sunflower with beeSummer is a season when we spend a lot of time outdoors, often in a neighborhood greenspace or our own backyard. Gardens play many roles in our lives -- a place to entertain friends, somewhere for children to play, or a serene getaway from a busy work routine. They are also excellent places for wildlife, especially for smaller animals like bees, butterflies, and beetles. Given the right combination of food and shelter, dozens of species of insects can be found in even a small plot.  For example, Xerces' senior conservation associate Matthew Shepherd has found more than a hundred different insects in his own suburban garden in Beaverton, Oregon.

This diversity is not unusual. Across the country surveys have discovered that wildlife exists in surprising places. More than one hundred species of bees were recorded in suburban gardens of New York City, over seventy species in gardens of Berkeley, California, and sixty-plus species in Tucson, Arizona. Even inner city community gardens in the Bronx and Harlem, hardly our image of wildlife habitat, are home to fifty-four species of bees and twenty-four species of butterflies.

aster There is a growing body of research into the connection between native plants and native insects. Over several years, Gordon Frankie and the Urban Bee Project of the University of California at Berkeley have conducted bee surveys in California. Gordon's team identifies plants growing in gardens and the bees that are attracted to them. This work has produced some eye-opening findings: native plants were at least four times as likely to attract native bees as exotic plants, and that a diversity of plants (eight or more species) significantly increases both the abundance and diversity of native bees.

On the other side of the country, Douglas Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, and his coworkers at the University of Delaware have been researching the relationship between native plants and herbivorous insects such as caterpillars. In an exhaustive review of plants that moth and butterfly caterpillars eat, Douglas' team found a remarkable difference in the numbers of species that will eat native versus nonnative plants. On average, nonnative plants supported less than five species of caterpillar, while native plants supported seventy-four species -- more than fifteen times as many! You can read more about these findings in the article "Aliens" in the latest issue of Wings.

poppy with beeClearly, native plants are better than nonnative plants for native insects. Sunflowers, coneflowers, aster, goldenrod, prairie clover, and phacelia will be alive with flower-visitors. This is not to say that there is never a place in your garden for nonnative plants. Species from other regions can be successful garden plants, and if chosen carefully, they can offer good sources of nectar or pollen for bees and other flower visitors. Lavender, cosmos, oregano, rosemary, and sage are all garden favorites and will help bees and butterflies. However, a garden full of nonnative plants will not benefit local insects as much as one with native plants. Here are some helpful hints and resources to help you build habitat for native insects in your own backyard.

What to do in your garden
  • Grow a diverse range of flowering plants
  • Use native species wherever possible
  • Provide blooms from late winter to late fall
  • Include host plants for caterpillars in your flower borders 
  • Provide nesting sites for bees such as bee blocks and bare ground
  • Avoid using pesticides 
Resources to help you succeed
1971 - 2011: Forty Years of Conservation
The Xerces Society is a nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat. The Society has been at the forefront of invertebrate protection worldwide for forty years, harnessing the knowledge of scientists and the enthusiasm of citizens to implement conservation programs.

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All photos by Matthew Shepherd of The Xerces Society
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