0508-dig-flower
Image: Nancy Boggs

DEBRA MORRISON’S BACKYARD garden is a comfortable mix of perennials, native plants, raspberry and blueberry patches, and one old, gnarled apple tree. It bursts with colorful blooms and fresh scents in spring, and the promise of delectable treats come fall. But when Morrison’s fruit and berry yields began to decline, she couldn’t explain why. The simple truth: Morrison’s garden had lost its buzz. Every yard needs visits from bees and other pollinators, especially those that feature fruit-bearing plants. They ensure better harvests, attract birds and other wildlife, and give a garden an almost hyperactive energy. Putting out the welcome mat for bees is easy, and you don’t need to worry about aggressive swarms or stinging welts.

To increase the chances of pollination, Morrison turned to Dawn Corl, owner of Beauty and the Bees. Corl, a backyard beekeeper, offers an “urban pollination contract”; she places a hive of honeybees in a client’s garden, tends it as needed, and then harvests the honey. After a productive spring and summer, Corl’s honeybees reward her clients with a good fruit set and the chance to buy the honey they produced using pollen from the customer’s own backyard. “I love buying the honey from my own hive,” Morrison says. “I can tell people ‘This is my honey from my yard.’”

The idea of sharing a garden with a hive of bees is unnerving for some, but Morrison has found the insects easy to have around. “They are incredibly benign,” she says. “I have big parties here, and it’s never been an issue.” Most aggression problems can be traced back to the queen’s behavior, says Corl. She monitors a hive’s tendencies, replacing the queen if necessary.

For folks who just can’t fathom playing host to a beehive, the orchard mason bee is a viable alternative. Mason bees, which look something like small houseflies, are native to almost all of North America and, while they won’t produce tasty honey, they will effectively pollinate your garden and encourage diversity. Their calm demeanor—mason bees don’t colonize or swarm aggressively—makes them an ideal choice for family gardens and curious children. “They’re gentle, gentle bees,” says Lisa Novich, owner of Knox Cellars, a local supplier of the bees and nesting material. “Kids can watch them with utter fascination and there’s no danger.”

Mason bees’ calm demeanor—they don’t colonize or swarm aggressively—make them an ideal choice for family gardens and curious children.

Although mason bees may visit your yard without assistance, many gardeners provide them housing to ensure their gardens will have a generation of resident mason bees each year. Female mason bees lay eggs in bored holes or strawlike tubes placed in the garden; the newly hatched bees then spend most of the year in a cocoon, emerging in early spring to begin gathering pollen before laying eggs and disappearing by summer.

Mason bee hobbyist Missy Anderson, who shares her knowledge (and bees) with Master Gardeners and area gardening clubs, started propagating the insects five years ago as a way to increase her fruit yield. Anderson began with just 40 tubes of bee cocoons, but her hobby has grown—she now cultivates more than 1,000 tubes each year, many of which she gives away to friends. “The bees are solitary, so that means they don’t gang up on you,” Anderson says. “If one of them flies out and hits you in the head, it just flies off; there’s no aggression.” Male mason bees don’t even have stingers, and females typically only sting if caught or cornered. Even then, Anderson contends, “It’s more like a mosquito bite than a sting.”

Even gardens that don’t have fruit plants will benefit from resident bees, Novich says. Half of her customers “just want them for the entertainment factor.” Novich herself is attracted to the energy bees bring to a landscape. “When I moved into my house on the Sammamish Plateau,” she says, “there was a perfect green lawn and not a bird in sight. The place was absolutely quiet. I brought home a box of bumblebees, and by the end of the summer, there were all sorts of bees and insects. All gardens look better with pollination. The whole thing gets richer.”