By Kathryn Pankowski

Since it looks like James Bay will be getting some new pollinator gardens soon (see Neighourhood Garden News below), I’d like to recommend one of my favourite garden activities: beeing. It’s rather like birding, only smaller. And buzzier.

I first got interested in serious bee-peering after going to a talk by Dr. Elizabeth Elle of SFU, who studies the native bees of coastal BC. Up until then, I’d been aware of honeybees, bumble bees, and that some people with orchards kept mason bees, but that was about it.

However, BC boasts over 450 species of bees, and many of them can be seen in James Bay gardens. There are bumblebees of many sorts – my favourite is Bombus vosnesenskii, which is so rotund and bumbly that it looks rather like a small and fuzzy flying hippo. There are sweat bees, small bees that you may think are yellow jackets or flies at first glance. There are mining bees, where each female bee excavates its own private tunnel-like nest in the ground. And there are the hairy-belly bees, who carry pollen on their furry stomachs instead of their legs.

Some of these bees have rather odd habits too. Carder bees like to collect woolly plant fuzz to line their nests. If your lamb’s-ear leaves have been ‘shaved’ in spots, it’s probably the work of carder bees. If a plant starts looking as if an overexcited toddler has been handed a hole punch and told to have a good time, that’s probably the work of leaf-cutter bees, who collect circles of vegetation to line the cells where they lay eggs, meaning that essentially you, thoughtful soul that you are, have grown baby blankets for bees. In my own garden, I’ve been lucky enough to catch a leaf-cutter bee in the act of getting the leaf circle into its underground burrow – it’s fascinating to watch the bee roll the leaf into a tube and pull it through the entrance.

Photo by Kathryn Pankowski

What if you want to attract more native bees to your garden? They need four things: water, food, shelter, and an absence of poisons and pollutants. Just like us.

If you only have a balcony, water is the easiest thing to provide. Take a shallow bowl or dish, and add water and rough pebbles that rise above the water line. Bees need a dry outcrop to stand on while drinking and a way of getting out if they fall in.

Food from the nectar and pollen in plants is the second easiest item to provide. If you are adding new plants, consult a list of bee favourites for the Pacific Northwest. Generally speaking, aim for having something in flower for as much of the year as possible. Choose more plants with flowers that remain close to the plant’s original form and fewer highly bred plants with double or sterile flowers. Add more native plants – camas along with tulips in spring pots, for example, although many of our native bees also feed happily on many introduced species as well. Try to avoid buying plants that have been treated with pesticides (more on this in another column).

For more information about bees in southwestern British Columbia and their needs, visit