Bee Observant: Studying Native Bees in Your Yard

If you and your students are away from the school hive over the summer, you can still learn about bees by studying native bees in your own yard. Students can keep journals where they make sketches of the bees and record their observations. Alternatively, they might keep an e-journal and add photos they took. 

Attract the Bees

The first step to studying native bees is to make sure you have plants that attract them to your yard. It’s helpful to have a wide range of plants since different species of bees emerge at different times of the year. A good starting point would be native plants since they evolved alongside native bees. Native plants are four times more attractive to native bees and pollinators. Check your local garden center for perennials native to your area. 

A bumblebee pollinates a prairie clover
NPS Photo by Erin Anfinson

Good choices for annuals include sunflowers, zinnias, bachelor’s buttons, cosmos, poppies, and larkspur. Even your vegetable garden can attract bees. Artichoke, beans, cucumber, peas, and squash all would work well in your bee sanctuary. Bee-friendly herbs include basil, dill, lavender, mint, oregano, and rosemary to name a few. Of course, bees also love fruit like blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and melon. 

Know Where to Look

Studying native bees is quite different than Bee TV on your Beepod. First of all, where would you begin to look? Flowers, right? Ah, but which flowers. Well, which grocery store do you go to? The one closest to home. Same with native bees. Except instead of loading up their minivans with bags of food, they need to take many trips back and forth. That means more chances for you to spot them!

So where is home? Look down. Seventy percent of North American bees are ground nesters. Ground bees are small in size and have small openings to their homes, making spotting them a bit more challenging. Bees tend to raise their young near where they were reared, so you can create a bee sanctuary in that area. They prefer areas with bare soil and gaps in vegetation that don’t get tilled as well as sunny, well-drained areas on south-facing slopes. Leave some clumps of grass or low-growing plants to prevent erosion. You can further entice them by making a pile of dirt mixed with sand on a low frame and topped with some pieces of firewood. Finish it off with some nearby native plants. 

The remaining native bees are wood nesters, making their homes in dead trees and other woody places. Unlike honey bees, most native bees live a solitary existence which makes it harder to spot their homes. Look for their nests in semi-hollow twigs, holes in dead trees, and rotting stumps and logs. If you don’t have dead trees in your yard, drill holes in logs at an upward angle to prevent water from entering. 

Know Who You Are Looking For

There are more than 4,000 native species of bees in North America. Caitlin’s blog from April provides a nice overview of native bees. Here are a few native bees known for their pollinating prowess. 

Mason Bees and Mining Bees

Active in spring, these bees are often found around fruit trees. 

Mining bees can be found across much of the world. As their name implies, they are ground nesters, making their homes in well-drained soils but also between the stones of old buildings or the logs of cabins and barns. These docile pollinators look like small honey bees with wasp-like wings. 

Mason bees get their name from building nests from mud, often between stones or the hollows of twigs and branches. There’s no need to fear these gentle pollinators. They may be black, metallic blue, or green and frequently accept human-made nesting blocks

Sweat Bees

Another bee with a metallic sheen is the sweat bee. Like the mason and mining bees, they like fruit but rather than in trees look close to the ground on blueberries, strawberries, and various flowers. They get their name because they are attracted to perspiration but don’t sweat it, they only sting when disturbed and their sting is minor. These dark-colored bees are found all over the world and mostly nest in the ground although a few may be found in wood. About half of North American sweat bees are green or blue. 

Bumble bee


There are a number of reasons why you are likely to spot bumblebees in your yard. They are the largest of the native bees, travel the farthest to forage, are active from spring to fall, and are the only native bees that are truly social, living in colonies. Look for nests in the ground or in cavities of trees. Good luck finding them though because they are often well-hidden and have long entry tunnels. 

Pruinose Squash Bee

Pruinose Squash Bee

Squash Bees

You guessed it–squash bees are attracted to the pollen of squash, pumpkins, and gourds. These small, black and yellow ground nesters do not emerge until early summer when squash plants are flowering. Males can be found sleeping inside the blossoms waiting for females. How romantic is that? 


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Bill Polacheck

Bill is a teacher, environmentalist, and freelance writer. If he's not out in nature, he's happy to be writing about it.'

Latest posts by Bill Polacheck (see all)'
Bill Polacheck
Bill is a teacher, environmentalist, and freelance writer. If he's not out in nature, he's happy to be writing about it.

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