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by Connie Pelissero, Consulting Rosarian


Some Basic Bee Facts:
  • There are 20,000 species of bees worldwide.
  • Over 4,000 species of native bees live in North America.
  • There are 1600 species of native bees in California.
  • Unlike honey bees, most native bees are solitary.
  • 70% of the native bees nest under ground and 30% nest above ground.

    Bee Creating a bee-friendly garden that will attract and support the bees throughout the year requires some planning. Bees need flowers to supply them with food (pollen and nectar) for survival. Many insects such as flies and wasps mimic true bees. True bees have two sets of wings. Flies have only two wings. The photo on the left shows a syrphid fly feeding on pollen and nectar. In the larval stage they feed on aphids and other soft-bodied insects. These are beneficial insects in your garden.

  • What is this pollen and nectar food?

    Pollen is the source of protein and vitamins for bees. Pollen grains vary from 10 to 100 micrometers in size and commonly contain protein levels ranging from 2% to 60%. They include the 10 essential amino acids, as well as varying concentrations of carbohydrates, lipids, sterols and other micronutrients. Pollen is an essential food used in the rearing of honey bee larvae and maturing of young worker bees. A good, strong colony of honey bees may collect and use 50 to 100 pounds of pollen during the season. Lack of pollen slows colony development in the spring, summer and fall. Native bees use collected pollen as a food source for their larvae too. Pollen is essential for the reproduction of both the bees and the flower and the two have co-evolved over millions of years for mutual success.

    Nectar is the source for carbohydrates. Nectar is composed of carbohydrates and water with low levels of amino acids, lipids, proteins and various vitamins and minerals. The carbohydrates are primarily the sugars: sucrose, fructose and glucose. The range in concentration can be between 10% and 70% based on the plant species and weather. This sugar-rich food source fuels the adult bees and they depend on it for energy. To provide the proper nutrition for the bees, one must offer a variety of blooming flowers throughout the year. Did you know that honey bees can fly up to 5 miles in a day while foraging? This is why they so desperately need nectar sources.

    If you want to keep bees in your area then it is important to know if you are providing enough nectar and pollen plants. Roses alone cannot provide enough food to sustain the bees. But choosing the right roses will offer the bees and other pollinators a fairly good pollen source. Most roses offer very little nectar.

  • Why do bees visit certain flowers?

    Bees are attracted to flowers by color, fragrance and floral morphology and arrangement. The form and structure of the flower will determine which bees or pollinators will likely visit. The physical size or shape of the bees will determine the kinds of flowers that the bees will visit. Long-tongued bees are the only bees able to reach deep inside some flowers that have long tubes with nectar at the bottom. Some bees base their flower preferences on nutritional needs.

    Some native bees are specialists and will only go to certain flowers. Flower specialty is a hard-wired tendency of a bee to visit only a specific type of flower, regardless of its abundance. Squash bees specialize in pollinating pumpkins, squash and gourds. Some "specialists" bees can only raise their young with pollen from particular plants.  Other bees are classified as "generalists" and will collect pollen from many different plant sources. Most bees that are generalists will enjoy different kinds of flowers but prefer a few types at a time. Floral specialists will never switch from their favorite floral type. Carpenter bees (Xylocopa) prefer to visit the same flower over and over again as they prepare their nests. Most bees exhibit floral constancy, which means they visit one or a few type of flowers each time they go out foraging. More flowers mean more bees. The ideal patch size for each flower type is 3.5 feet by 3.5 feet.

    Many insects such as flies and wasps mimic true bees. True bees have two sets of wings. Flies have only two wings. These are syrphid flies feeding on pollen and nectar. In the larval stage they feed on aphids and other soft-bodied insects. These are beneficial insects in your garden.

    Take a walk in your garden and see how many native bees you can find. Some common native bee species found in most of our Bay Area gardens are: Mining bees, Digger bees, Honey Bees, CA bumble bee, Black tail bumble bee, Yellow-faced bumble bee, Small and Large Carpenter bees, Gray digger bee, Long-horn digger bee, Squash bees, Cuckoo bee, Masked bees, Ultra-green sweat bees. Large, Small and Tiny sweat bees, Spined-cheek sweat bees, Leafcutting bees, Alfalfa leafcutting bee, Mason bees and Blue orchard bees.

  • Honeybees Do Not See The Same Colors We Do

    Bees get to see in the ultraviolet world. We can never see colors the way bees see them. Bees see “primary colors” as blue, green and ultraviolet (see color chart below). Humans see "primary colors as red, blue, and green. Bees can tell the difference between yellow, orange, blue-green, violet, purple, as combinations of their three primary colors. Humans can tell the difference between about 60 colors as combinations of the three primary colors. Bee Color Chart Not all the studies agree on the exact colors or preferences bees see, but they all agree that Honeybees see the color red as black.

    Many flowers have markings or patterns seen in the flowers of some angiosperm species that guide pollinators to the nectar, pollen, or both. These are called Floral Guides, Nectar Guides, Pollen Guides, or Bee Floral Guide Honey Guides. Sometimes these markings or patterns are visible to humans. Floral guides can be seen in the photo to the right. Walk into a garden and observe the floral guides on Iris or Digitalis. Look at some of your roses. Do you see any floral guides? Humans cannot see ultraviolet color on flowers. Honey bees and native bees can see ultraviolet color.

    Under ultra violet light the flowers have a darker center, where the nectaries are located and often specific patterns upon the petals as well. This is believed to make the flowers more attractive to pollinators such as bees and other insects that can see ultraviolet light. One must use special photography to view UV Bee Ultraviolet Light color on flowers. There are some UV photos that show that there is a good bull's eye pattern in UV light on the Rosa Majalis and the Rosa Dumalis. Explore the Internet for amazing UV photos of the floral guides on flowers.

    This nectar guide picture to the left is from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
    This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales license.                                                                                                                    

  • When one walks into a garden, one rarely thinks of roses as something to plant for bees.

    Usually in Spring the plants that come to mind are: Phacelia tanacetifolia (Lacy phacelia) which is one of the best pollen/nectar plant for Spring bee species or Linaria purpurea (Purple toadflax) which is superb nectar plant attracting a variety of bee species. Eschscholzia California (California Poppy) is the foundation pollen plant for many bee species.

    Bees have timed their emergence with the bloom of native flowers they prefer to forage on but will also visit non-native ornamental flowers that may be in bloom at the same time.

  • Remember form and structure

    Some roses that have a "pollen-bowl" flower provide an abundance of pollen. Pollen Bowl If one looks closely at the rose you can see the many anthers surrounding the stigma. Pollen-collecting bees will spend time dancing around the many anthers and brush against the stigma while doing so, thus pollinating the flower. Most roses offer little or no nectar reward for the foraging bees and insects, but the bees will leave with an abundance of pollen.

    Choose roses that have open flowers, and fewer petals than the heavily cultivated varieties. They offer the ideal pollen bowl for "pollen-collecting bees" and other insects. Many of the modern hybrid roses offer little or nothing to pollinators. There are thousands of roses that are perfect for the bees and pollinators. Spend some time exploring rose catalogues, "American Rose" magazine or the Internet to add some of these roses to your garden to support the bees. Some of the modern roses that are very successful for attracting bees and beneficial insects in my garden are the Lyda Rose, Julia Child, Anna's Promise, Charlatan, and Watercolors Home Run. All of these roses are disease free and offer continual blooming in the garden. Follow the new rose introductions each year for roses that provide a flower with easy access to the pollen.

    Leafcutter Bee Damage The leafcutter bees (Megachile spp.) enjoy rose leaves to use in the construction of their nests (see photo at left). Leafcutter bees cut precise round or oval holes from the sides of plant leaves. They use a "wrapper" of leaves, resin and sand to create their nests.

  • Creating a successful native bee/pollinator garden...

    Choose a variety of plants with flowering times from February to October. Select at least 20 different plant types to provide diverse sources of nectar and pollen.

    Create a garden using native and nonnative plants that bees love. There are only a few California natives that bloom past midsummer, so it is important to consider some nonnative plants that will sustain the bees.

    Plant in the sun. Bees prefer to visit flowers in the sun. Pick out the sunniest spots for your bee plants.

    Most bees exhibit floral constancy, which means they visit one or a few types of flowers each time they go out foraging. More flowers mean more bees. The ideal patch size for each flower type is 3.5 feet by 3.5 feet.

    Know your plant climate zone. Consider your garden microclimates when determining what plants will be successful in your garden. Choose plants that have similar cultural requirements in order for your plants to have the greatest success.

    Do not use pesticides!!! They kill beneficial insects like bees as well as parasites and predators of garden pests that provide natural pest control.

    Don't forget about nesting bees! Native bees will build their nests in the ground or in cavities in wood. Leave parts of your garden untidy and un-mulched for the ground-nesting bees to discover.

    You may want to seek out some of these resources and books that I used for research in writing this article.

    California Bees & Blooms A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists by Gordon W. Frankie, Robbin W. Thorp, Rollin E. Coville, and Barbara Ertter

    Bumble Bees of North America by Paul Williams, Robbin Thorp, Leif Richardson & Sheila Colla 100 Plants to FEED THE BEES - Provide a Healthy Habitat o Help Pollinators Thrive by The Xerces Society
    This book lists the most popular bee plants and the % of nectar with a sugar ratio - 30% or 65%. This is helpful for you as you choose among the many plants for your garden space. You want to be sure that you are not just planting beautiful flowers with no nutritional value.

    The Bees In Your Backyard by Joseph S. Wilson & Olivia Messinger Carril

    The Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, University of California, Davis, is the largest and most comprehensive state supported apiculture facility in North America and the only one in California.

    University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Master Gardener website. I attended seminars with Robbin Thorp, "Wild Bee Conservation, Bee Biology" - Professor Emeritus and Elina L Nino - Extension Apiculturist. (2012-2017). Attended the Sept. 2017, program on "Bee-ing a Better Bee Gardener: Learning From Research" program at U C Davis with the Harry Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Dept. Chairs.

    Gordon Frankie - UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab - go to their website.

    The UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab. This facility is an excellent local resource for any questions you may have on bees, both European and Native. Their research group at the University of California has been working since 1987 on documenting bee diversity and bee frequencies on wild California plants in several northern California sites. Through their research efforts, they have developed a comprehensive chart on bee-friendly plants. You may go to their website at UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab and download a PDF version.

    Photos by Connie Pelissero.









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    Last Modified: 11/30/17