Gardens for the bees

by Sarah Cassidy

This article was originally published in April 2018

women holding vegetables in garden

Every Third Bite You Eat Thank the Bees

For every third bite you eat, thank the bees.
For the peppers on your pizza, and the cheese.
You know that bees make honey, but the nectar’s just the tease.
For every third bite you eat, thank the bees.
Hum a little hummm, buzz a little buzzz!
Every third bite you eat, thank the bees.
Flowers cannot go out on a date.
They just have to sit alone and wait.
Until they get the pollen, they cannot set the seed.
For every third bite you eat, thank the bees.
Hum a little hummm, buzz a little buzzz!
Every third bite you eat, thank the bees.

—Nancy Schimmel and Judy Fjell

I have spent the last 25 years tending farms and food gardens, including Seattle Tilth’s Demonstration Gardens, Oxbow Farm, and my own Hearth Farm. I used to think of my work as growing organic food for humans. These days I prefer to consider the whole effort as growing food for bees.

Feeding humans is an incidental perk. I feed bats, moths, butterflies and beetles, too — they all fall under the pollinator category. Yet, bees are our symbolic pollinator: bundled in their warm coats, using their collective intelligence and organized industry, and spinning their nectar-to-honey alchemy. Unfortunately, their numbers are declining. We must begin paying attention to see how we can support pollinators’ survival and vital work.

I’ve taught food-growing classes with PCC Cooks since 2016. This April I am teaching “Grow Good Food” at select PCCs, where anyone with a backyard, balcony or P-patch can chart their food-growing course for the season from ground up (visit to register and learn more). In this, as in all my PCC classes, I devote a thorough section to the “unsung farm crew” of your garden — the birds, bees, worms, insects, bats and spiders that work the swing shift long after you clock out, keeping balance in your backyard ecosystem. In all classes, I like to remind my students that each of them inherits this hardworking farm crew along with the soil they cultivate. Like all workforces, the farm crew needs to be upheld and empowered to perform at their best.

These creatures far outpace me in the work they do to keep the soil healthy and the pest-to-beneficial insect ratio balanced. I view my role as simply helping to enable their work. I cannot pretend to know how best to locate and eat slug eggs, for example, and therefore I leave that job to the ground beetles (thankfully). When aphids attack, I know the ladybugs and their larvae will be right around the corner for clean up. When it comes to pollination, I let bees, bats, moths, hummingbirds, beetles and butterflies do what they do best: fertilize flowers.

Elias Bloom, Ph.D. candidate in entomology at Washington State University (WSU), has devoted his academic career to ensuring healthy pollinator populations. Bloom explains that the wild bee population is rich and varied: there are approximately 900 types of wild bee species in the Pacific Northwest with roughly 4,000 different species in North America and between 24-30,000 species worldwide. Much of the species, such as the bumblebee, are better equipped with fur coats to pollinate in wetter, colder weather than other bees, such as the honeybee, can handle.

Pollinator and flower co-evolution

Flowering plants have evolved in a close mutualistic relationship with pollinators — bees, butterflies, bats, hummingbirds, moths and certain bugs. The symbiosis was struck more than 100 million years ago and is evolving constantly. Flowers use their own charms of vivid colors and enticing scents to draw in pollinators. The pollinators carry flower pollen granules to each flower they visit, triggering flower fertilization. The pollinators are rewarded for these services and get fed both pollen and nectar from the fertilized flower. Each participant gets its needs met and mutualism is accomplished.

Unfortunately, the human-pollinator co-evolutionary relationship is suffering. Today, in our role as humans, we function in more of a parasitic relationship with bees than a mutualistic or symbiotic one. We are dependent on pollinators to feed us, just as the flowers are, and yet in many ways we are not upholding our end of the deal. In fact, many of our human activities are to blame for the die-off of bats and bees, including habitat loss from development and an increase in the use of environmental toxins.

Enforced Evolution

Turning the tide of pollinator decline will require dedication. These efforts will require human devotion to these small and seemingly incidental insects. We must learn what pollinators eat, where they live, how they overwinter, and how to keep them safe and healthy.

Armed with this increased information we can begin to help preserve pollinator habitats. Let’s aspire to mutualism with pollinators! Let’s become pollinator devotees and erect pollinator shrines — in our apartment balconies, backyard gardens, suburban and urban landscapes — growing their favorite foods and providing space for them to live.

They help feed us. Let’s feed them, too.

Where to begin?

If we wish to invite birds to our garden, we hang up bird feeders in safe, cat-free locations to entice them. So, too, for pollinators. If we wish to invite wild bees and butterflies into our garden, we can lure them with their favorite foods. Below are some recommendations for creating bee-friendly spaces.

Got weeds? Good. Weeds are by far the easiest way to host pollinators. Dandelions, buttercup, smartweed, and selfheal all make their appearance in the American lawns and flower beds. Allow your weeds to bloom, as they are the favored flavors of many native bees.

Plant native shrubs and plants into your landscape. Native plants attract native bees, having co-evolved together for millennia. Native forbs and shrubs are some of the easiest plants to maintain in our region, as they are best-suited for our climate with its dry summers (although remember that all new plantings need regular watering during their first season of growth).

Plant summer herbs, vegetables, fruits and flowers to attract pollinators. Are you a gardener that wants harvest payback for your garden labor? Vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers work to lure pollinators too. Fruit trees provide vital early-season forage for mason bees and bumblebees. Cutting flowers, such as sunflowers, cosmos and calendula, are wild bee magnets. Bean, squash, tomatillo and tomato blooms are big attractants for pollinators and letting cilantro, dill and comfrey go to flower entice a wide assortment of wild bees.

Protect pollinators from pesticides. Pesticides commonly found in lawn and garden products are known to be hazardous to bees — some killing bees outright and others with subtle effects that reduce bees’ ability to thrive. Choosing organically grown products for your kitchen table is important in protecting pollinators against pesticides. So, too, is choosing organic maintenance methods for your garden and lawn.

Create healthy habitats

So, you have successfully enticed native and wild bees to your garden through the diverse, buffet-style floral blooms you have planted — congratulations! The next step is to help create a healthy habitat for them.

You may be familiar with the traditional honeybee hive box, but where do our native and wild bees call home? It turns out that 30 percent of native bees are wood-nesting and cavity-nesting, making their nests in old beetle tunnels in softened snags and rotting wood, or hollow stems and tubes. The other 70 percent of native bee species nest in the ground, inhabiting abandoned mouse houses beneath grassy tussocks.

You can provide homes for these bees. Mason bee and other pollinator nesting boxes are commonly available at garden centers.

Plans for making your own habitats also are easy to find online, as are other cool pollinator “hotel” ideas, such as bundling the hollow stems of bamboo, sunflower or reeds together.

But take care: the close quarters and the annual reuse of these nesting boxes enable dangerous conditions for the spread of disease and the buildup of parasites. As with honeybees, attention to cleanliness is essential for the health of the brood.

Bee the change

There are efforts in our region to help bring about a more robust human-pollinator mutualism. WSU’s Elias Bloom enlists “citizen scientists” in his bee monitoring: backyard gardeners and other interested area residents who record bee sightings in their gardens and relay this information back to Bloom and his team.

“Citizen science gives us the opportunity to monitor bees over a much greater time scale than traditional science run by researchers,” Bloom says, “which, in turn, can help us to conserve bee species in the Puget Sound region and beyond.” Find out how you can join Bloom’s citizen science ranks at

It is up to us to achieve symbiosis with pollinators and to help them thrive in our urban and rural spaces. If we follow these simple steps to preserve pollinator habitat, the result will be more flowers in bloom, more wild spaces amidst cultivated landscapes, and more bees and other pollinators helping to bring us every third bite of our food.

The following is a list of Xerces Society recommended natives that bloom throughout the season for an overlapping and continual pollinator forage:    

Early season March – June:
Lupine, Oregon grape, clarkia, Nootka rose, Pacific ninebark

Mid season June – September:
Milkweed, Douglas spiraea, Blueblossom, Salal

Late season August – November:
Goldenrod, Douglas aster, Ocean spray

Sarah Cassidy is a farmer, food grower and educator in the Snoqualmie Valley. She and her family raise pigs, chickens, asparagus, herbs, tomatoes and other crops at Hearth Farm and are the new owners of a farm-to-table restaurant in Duvall, WA.

Also in this issue

PCC's 2018 annual Election

PCC’s Annual Election is just around the corner. Get ready to cast your vote!

Introducing PCC's Protect the Pollinators project

In many places pollinator communities are in decline. Don’t despair – help make a difference! Join PCC’s Protect the Pollinators Project. Purchase and plant pollinator-positive plants in your yards and gardens and encourage your family, friends and neighbors to do the same. Become a citizen scientist and join efforts across the country to count pollinators. Share your photographs to help build pollinator-positive excitement and win prizes!