So You Want to Get a Bee House…

Learn if a native bee house is right for you and how to support these superstar pollinators no matter your time or space constraints.

The bees need our help, and no, we’re not referring to honeybees! While honeybees can be an incredibly helpful domesticated species, they’re not native to America. In fact, most of our native bees don’t form hives or make honey at all, which make them very docile insects because they don’t have to defend their home and food source. Instead most native bees are solitary, with one female bee laying a series of egg chambers in a tunnel either in the ground, a dead plant stem, or in tunnels in wood. Many native bees are also much more efficient pollinators than their honey-making counterparts!

Unfortunately, with their natural habitat being replaced by development, the native bees are struggling to survive at a time when we need them more than ever as essential pollinators. Many conscientious gardeners hear this and immediately jump into action by offering a native bee house for these species. But these bee houses actually only provide one part of what these native bee species need to survive and they can often be more work to maintain than many gardeners anticipate. So is a native bee house the right pick for your garden?

Read up on how you can provide everything these native bees need to survive and raise their young in your garden, no matter your time, space, or resource constraints!

1. Providing the Habitat Basics

Time or resource level: EASY

Lucky for us (and the bees) providing a welcoming habitat with huge impact is actually quite easy, it just takes a bit of intention.

A bee perches on a flower with bright pink petals.
Not only will the adult bees consume the nectar and pollen, they will create a mixture of it for their offspring as part of their cocoons. Credit: Erik Agar/Getty Images

Plant Native. Native plants are always the best bet for supporting native wildlife and they are the best source of pollen and nectar for native bees to eat. In fact, some bee species are pollen specialists and can only use the pollen of certain native plants to feed their offspring, so providing a wide variety of native species is best.

Luckily, no matter what kind of garden you have, whether it’s a sprawling yard or a balcony container garden, you can find native plants that will thrive. You can even save money by growing them from seed. Find plants native to your region and make sure they provide staggered blooms throughout the season.

Leave the Stems and Logs. One of the best things you can do for these native bees is to leave the brown, dried stems of your plants standing through the winter and into spring. Many native bees lay their eggs in the stems, and cutting them down in fall can prevent the next generation from emerging in spring. Once you do cut the stems in late spring, leave them roughly 18-24 inches tall so the next generation of native bees can use them as nesting places. Just let the new growth of the plant grow up around the old stems and you won’t even see them! You can also keep a fallen log or two in your garden which will also serve as nesting spots for native bees.

Avoid the Harmful Chemicals. Pesticides have far-reaching impacts way past the animals and plants they target. Remove pesticides from your gardening routine to ensure you don’t accidently harm the native bees you’re attracting.

2. Level Up Your Native Bee-Friendly Garden

Time or resource level: MODERATE

A ceramic dish filled with mud and rocks can be seen outside in a garden setting.
By selecting a nice container and location for your mud dish, it can serve both as a vital habitat component and decoration in your garden. Credit: Tess Renusch

Once you’ve already provided the basics for these bees by planting native, leaving the stems, and removing pesticides, you can start adding more beneficial elements to your space.

Add in a Mud Source. Many of the native bee species will use mud to build the chamber walls of their nesting tunnels and they only search for this resource within a short distance. Offering even a small source of damp soil in a shallow dish can go far for these little pollinators. Not only will these mud dishes help the native bees, but many butterflies will also use it as a puddling area where they can get salts and minerals from the mud and some birds like robins and phoebes may even use this mud as building material for their nests!

3. Make Native Bee-Keeping Your Hobby Through a Bee House

Time or resource level: DIFFICULT

The previous steps will be more than sufficient for providing habitat for native bees and will fit most gardeners’ time and resource availability. However, you may find yourself so enamored with these little insects that you want to turn this interest into an outright hobby. In this case, adding a native bee house may be a good fit for you!

A small bee house can be seen attached to the side of a structure or wall. It is filled with hollowed out sticks.
Solitary bee houses are often small structures full of natural or human-made tubes that allow bees to create their cocoons inside. Credit: David Mizejewski

Get a Native Bee House (But Pick the Right One): Not all native bee houses are created equal. If you’re going to purchase a solitary bee house, we recommend finding a vendor that has put time and thought into making sure you have all of the educational resources you need to care for the house and the bees. Look for manufacturers that specialize in native bee houses rather than the houses sold in home improvement and hardware stores, which are often of poor design.

Remember that adding a native bee house is not a replacement for offering habitat through native plants, standing stems, pesticide reduction, or mud sources, but is simply a way to offer supplemental nesting spots for certain species.

Commit to Proper Maintenance and Cleaning: Anytime we add a human-made structure into nature, it will need human intervention to keep it clean, safe, and actually beneficial to wildlife. Bee houses can sometimes do more harm than good by attracting bee predators and parasites that discover the house and realize it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet. To prevent this, bee houses must be closely monitored and the bee cocoons removed from the nesting tubes, disinfected, and stored in a refrigerator at proper humidity levels through the winter for release the following spring.

If you’ve purchased your bee house from a reputable vendor that offers ample educational resources, these instructions will either come with your house or can be found through your vendor. If this is too much of a commitment, then a bee house may not be the right fit for you, and that is alright! Remember that these bee houses, while a fun addition, are not the most vital habitat component for these bees and you can maximize your effort by offering the other habitat elements covered.

Remember, You Can’t Buy Nature

While there are many store-bought options for housing native bee species or even buying the bees themselves, it’s important to remember that nature can’t truly be purchased. These bees are one part of a broad and interconnected ecosystem and will not thrive in an ecological vacuum. The best way to support and bring native bees to your yard is to build a healthy habitat full of native plants and free of pesticides, and the bees will find their way to you.