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Planting Habitat for Bees and Other Pollinators ft Dr. Marla Spivak

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Show Notes

This week planting habitat for bees and other pollinators is the topic of discussion between our host Nicole and Dr. Marla Spivak of the University of Minnesota.

What You’ll Learn

  • How planting habitat for bees and other pollinators is the best way to help them.
  • What flowers to include when planting habitat for bees and other pollinators.
  • How everyone can help bees and other pollinators, you don’t need acres of land or even a backyard!
  • What is a bee lawn?

Our Guest

Dr. Marla Spivak, McArthur Fellow 2010, Distinguished McKnight Professor and a beekeeper for over 40 years. Currently, she works primarily on research and extension with the University of Minnesota.

She is the head of the Spivak Honey Bee Lab and where you will find links to research, academic classes, research, and a plethora of information on planting habitat for bees and other pollinators

Resources & Links Mentioned

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    Announcer: 0:01

    Welcome to the Backyard Bounty podcast from, where we aim to educate and inspire you by sharing practical information to help your homestead thrive. And now, here's your host, Nicole.

    Nicole: 0:16

    Hello, everybody. And thank you so much for joining me for another episode of Backyard Bounty. I'm your host Nicole, and today we're joined by Dr. Marla Spivak from the University of Minnesota, who's also a 2010 MacArthur Fellow, a distinguished McKnight professor and a beekeeper for over 40 years. And today we're going to be talking about planting habitat for bees. So Dr. Spivak, thank you so much for joining me today.

    Marla: 0:42

    Thank you for having me. Looking forward to this.

    Nicole: 0:45

    I am as well, you've been a beekeeping idol of mine for a long time. And in taking the Cornell Master Beekeeper class I got to learn more about the breeding program that you have. But for those that might not be familiar with your very long list of accomplishments. Can you maybe just touch on some of the highlights of your beekeeping research throughout the years?

    Marla: 1:08

    Well, mostly, it's not about me. Mostly it's about trying to help bees and educating everybody about the value of bees and understanding that they're not just honey bees out there. We have many species of bees in the world. And it's important to make sure that they're all healthy and thriving.

    Nicole: 1:29

    Yeah, I know that when I see the whole save the bees campaign, and they always focus on the honeybees. I feel like the honeybee is a good poster child. But like you said, People forget that there are native bees, and they are in desperate need of our help as well.

    Unknown Speaker 1:45

    Right. So people when you say bees, many, many people automatically think about honeybees, a managed species, a very important pollinator introduced from Europe hundreds of years ago into North America. But then there's many, many native species of bees that are not social, and you know, they're just kind of under represented.

    Nicole: 2:05

    I think people tend to forget about them because they don't make honey or, you know...

    Unknown Speaker 2:10

    Right. But that's okay. For me if you start thinking about honeybees, and you enter that into the bee world, that portal, if you will, it's a gateway into learning about so many other issues. And it's not just about beekeeping. beekeeping can be fun, but right now beekeeping, keeping a honeybee colony alive is extremely difficult for many reasons. So people think, well, maybe I should get a colony of bees to help bees. And that's really not really helping the bees. What really helps them is to provide them with food, and all they eat is flowers, pollen and nectar from flowers. So everybody can help bees by planting habitat for them floral habitat.

    Nicole: 2:56

    So I've heard some debate along the way of planting just a container of buckwheat or something isn't really going to offer a lot of benefit in in the ways of food. But when you're talking about planting for bees, what does that look like? Is that something that needs to be done on a big scale? Or is it something that can be done on a smaller scale as well?

    Marla: 3:16

    I think it needs to be done on every scale imaginable. So I think everybody can do their part. Even if you live in an apartment building and you plant some potted herbs outside on your balcony and you let them flower, a few bees will visit and you're doing your part. I don't want to leave anybody out. I don't want to make it a task that's daunting, or that I have to wait until there's 35 acres or 35,000 acres. I think everybody can plant a little bit or a lot.

    Nicole: 3:46

    And so what sort of things, you mentioned, like the the herbs, but what sort of things can people plant? You know, I get a lot of people that say hey, I don't necessarily want to be a beekeeper, but I want to help the bees. And so this sounds like a really great way that people can support them.

    Marla: 4:02

    Well, one of the projects we've been looking at over the past years, a couple of students and in collaboration with other professors here at the University is this idea of a bee lawn. That's what we're calling it. And really it's just a lawn with flowers in it. And I think years ago, most turf lawns had white clover in them. You know that little I used to call it Dutch clover. I don't know where that name came from but little white clover and nondescript. We started looking at the value of just that particular flower to bees, all kinds of bees and in the parks where we were looking at it in Minneapolis. It supports over 50 species of bees, not just honeybees, and many other species of native bees. And you know the honeybees when it blooms all over the place, they can actually make a honey crop out of it. And that's not even doing anything at all. It's just not putting herbicide broadleaf herbicide on your lawn and letting the the clover come back in. And then if you add a few more floral species in there that bloom a little later in the season or that have a different flower structure, they'll attract even more bees and maybe different bees. So we did some research on planting Prunella Vulgaris, which is Self Heal. It's a native plant found totally all across the United States. It's a little purple flower, and it's creeping, and you can plant seed or plugs into your lawn and it will bloom and attract different species of bees, flowering time, you know, creeping time, that's not a native plant, but that's also a good one, and that'll bloom later in the season. We have instructions for how to prepare your lawn in the fall, you can scalp it and aerate it and then seed it in the fall. Or you can do that earlier in the spring. We have lots of instructions on our website about how you might plan to be lawn. And it doesn't have to be just dandelions. You know, people think of "Oh gosh, dandelions in my lawn". Well, dandelions have kind of a bad rap. And so does Creeping Charlie. And although both of those flowers are great for bees, I think we want to start out with flowers that don't have a bad reputation already as being weedy and spreading. So if we use some that are kind of unusual, or like clover, just really nondescript, then people might be more amenable to having these flowering lawns.

    Nicole: 6:34

    I know, I've seen some lawns that didn't have any grass in them, and they were just the clover. And they're actually very pretty, I think they still have a great aesthetic appeal.

    Marla: 6:43

    Right? So then you can go from there. So the bee lawn concept was this idea for newly initiated people, people that really would like the manicured lawn look, that may be really, for some reason, I don't know why this would be, for me personally, that like to mow the lawn.

    Nicole: 7:02

    Oh, yeah.

    Marla: 7:04

    But if you have a few flowers in the lawn, I thought, well, you know, you would probably want to mow less because you want to let the flowers flower, bloom for the bees. And then you would not want to be putting any broadleaf herbicide on your lawn. So that would reduce the chemical inputs. And so you could reduce mowing, input and chemical inputs. And if you use a turf, like a fine fescue that's really northern adapted, it's a great lawn for the North, not Kentucky Bluegrass, although that's fine too. But if you use a fescue, lawn, fine fescue, then you don't have to mow it as often. So all of these things would reduce inputs without doing too much extra and maintaining this desired by some people aesthetic of a manicured lawn. And then for those that are a little more adventurous, pick, get rid of the turf. And you can grow a low growing, creeping, you know, lawn or gardens or a full fledged meadow or prairie and adding, you know, native grasses in there. And all native species, you know, you there's all kinds of things. I really think people should garden, how they want to, there's no prescription for that. But I would like people to think about flowers that are really attractive to bees and reducing chemical inputs, especially those that might contaminate the food on the flowers, so they contaminate the pollen and the nectar.

    Nicole: 8:28

    So you mentioned finding flowers that are attractive for bees. And I'm sure there's a whole list and it would vary a lot by your region. But is there some general characteristics of flowers that bees prefer?

    Marla: 8:41

    Well the bees know really well, so there are many plant lists. Again, we have some on our website, you can go to all kinds of pollinator webs just type in "pollinator" into Google and plant lists. And there's many of them and they're regional. But basically, if you walk around, and you look at flowers while they're blooming, or you go to your nursery and they have outdoor plants, and some of them are flowering, you'll see bees on some flowers and not on others. And when you see a lot of bees on flowers over the season, figure out what those are and plant those, that's the best way to do it. Because there's varieties of the same kind of flower like dahlias, for example, are mums. Some varieties are really attractive to bees and some not at all. And it just depends on the breed and the variety. And you know, to come up with that kind of a detailed plant list is really really tricky. So you just have to trial and error plant the flowers that you see bees on

    Nicole: 9:41

    That's been my go to trick for years. I love to go the nursery when everything's in bloom and I just I try to find the bees and whatever I find bees on comes home.

    Marla: 9:49

    Exactly. And don't forget the shrubs and flowering trees. So you know you don't have to think about just perennial or annual flowers. forbs there's many flowering shrubs. And there's many trees in our area in Minnesota, the basswood trees tilia produces a lot of nectar for all kinds of bees. And you know, you think about the square footage of flowers on a tree, the surface area is huge. So you can, you know, go a long way, feeding bees with trees.

    Nicole: 10:23

    Yeah, that's a really good point about service area. I guess. I never really thought of a tree like that. So I think that's a nice way to look at them. You know, one question that I get a lot. Why is it that not every flower is appealing to a bee? I think some people think, well, I'm just going to plant a flower or a variety of flowers, and then they're a little mystified when they're not, you know, overtaken by local pollinators,

    Marla: 10:50

    Right. Well, some flowers are wind pollinated. You know, think think about corn, for example. It actually has a tassel, which is a flower that bees don't need to visit. It doesn't need a pollinator because it's pollinated by the wind. Irises, for example, in the lily family, they don't really need pollinators. Other plants have been bred by humans, especially annual ornamentals, we've bred them to be pretty to us. And when you do that kind of breeding, especially when you make multiple layers of petals somehow in that and I'm not a good botanist or horticulture as if you know, but if somehow in that breeding process, investing in more petals means less pollen or nectar available to bees or production in general. So it really depends, but it's not true. Like I said, for example, some dahlias are moms with multiple petals are super attractive to bees, and others not. When in doubt, go with heirloom varieties. So think about roses. If you think about a tea rose, honey bees, or other bees really may not visit that very much at all, depending again on the variety but if you think about wild roses, rock roses, they really love those.

    Nicole: 11:59

    Well thank you for explaining that. I think that that will definitely help some folks who are looking for some flower choices. What about garden plants or herbs or vegetables or anything like that, or maybe garden practices that would be beneficial?

    Marla: 12:15

    Sure. Let's go back to the herbs. So many herbs are in the mint family and bees happen to like almost every plant in the mint family so you can grow your herbs and then at the end of the season, let them flower. So then you get your herbs and then the bees get to eat something from that too. I mean, you can still harvest your oregano and your mint and your time and your sage for example. But then let it flower at the end and the bees will like it you know all the berries bees really like to visit so those are good garden plants that the bees will pollinate and they'll be able to get some food from them. Bees really like legumes, honeybees in particular, like many of the legumes not all of them but anything you know in not really like peas, but clovers and alfalfa has they really like and of course, on a larger scale the oilseed crops like canola and borage, calendula, those kinds of crops that were the seeds contain a lot of oil, the bees are pollinating them and also getting food from them.

    Nicole: 13:21

    And what about the use of cover crops?

    Marla: 13:23

    So cover crops are great. So cover crops can be clover or alfalfa, or these oilseed crops, for example, that I was just mentioning, but the great thing about doing this is that they have multiple benefits. So the cover crops are feeding the bees, and they're providing habitat for other insects and of birds and wildlife. But they're also nourishing the soil. And then having a cover crop on the ground is preventing soil erosion. And then when you prevent soil erosion, you're then improving water quality, and you're keeping carbon in the soil. So not just cover crops, anything any perennial prairies or gardens that you put in, where you're keeping plants in the ground over the year has so many benefits not only to the insects and birds, other animals that are above ground but to soil nutrients, and then water quality. And then finally, climate change with carbon. So that's why I'm really advocate that people plant on any scale because when you think about climate change, it gets just just get so daunting. What can you possibly do that by planting some flowers somewhere and keeping them in the ground? You know, in this case, not so much pots but actual in the ground in the soil has so many benefits.

    Nicole: 14:55

    Yeah, I think cover crops are fantastic. I love all of the benefits that you I mentioned and that's something that we recently added to our garden process. Definitely. And I wasn't aware of the carbon benefit of it. So that's, that's interesting to me. So, we've talked about planting for pollinator habitat and reducing the use of the broadleaf pesticides. Is there anything else that would be beneficial for folks to do to support the pollinators?

    Marla: 15:27

    Well, I think any amount of pesticide reduction that can happen would be beneficial. So pesticides, of course include insecticides designed to kill insects and herbicides designed to kill weeds, and fungicides, which are being used more and more, that are designed to kill fungi are in molds. And any amount that we can reduce in our homes and in our gardens in our in our crops, would be a great thing. For herbicides, you know, they drift and then kill flowering plants that are along the edges and borders, insecticides, if there are drift or you know, in the wind move off the target crop that where bees may not necessarily be, for example, corn, or in our area, bees aren't really visiting soybeans, although they do and locations further south of us where the soil and variety is different. But here, they're not visiting corn and soybeans very much. But if a grower is trying to apply an insecticide to those crops, and they're doing it by an aerial spray, if that sprayed drifts over onto nearby flowering plants that could hurt the bees. And the same with homeowners, you know, I bet homeowners are not as careful as some of the farmers, I would say, homeowners they're not restricted in the amounts or kinds of insecticides and herbicides that they can purchase and use. And they tend to, unfortunately, overuse a lot of these pesticides. So what I really like about planning pollinator habitat, is that it hopefully makes everybody think about "Okay, I just planted these flowers now, I planted intentionally to feed bees, so I better not contaminate it". Some people think that we need to regulate pesticide use, we need to reduce pesticides before we can even think about advocating for pollinator habitat that I think from the other way around, I think nobody out there really wants to kill a bee. Now there might be a few people. I would say most people really farmers, homeowners, they really don't want to be out there killing beneficial pollinators. And so intentionally putting in habitat for them, I think is a way forward to reduce pesticide use.

    Nicole: 17:52

    I think that absolutely makes sense. It almost sounds to me like planting, even if it's on a small scale, like you mentioned somebody that lives in apartment, it's kind of trying to do our part to offset some of the habitat loss from construction and expansion and things like that.

    Marla: 18:12

    Yes, yes, let's green it up. And really thinking about greening and flowering it up multicolor setup in areas of cities that don't have a lot of green spaces that are mostly pavement, you know, so areas where we just really have not invested in green spaces. And those are great places to start. And you know that that way, it helps human mental health to have more green spaces, but also habitat for bees and birds. And, you know, bring it all back. We can do it right in the city. We can do it suburbs, out in our agricultural areas, natural areas.

    Nicole: 18:53

    Tons of benefits, lots of good reasons to plant flowers. And those are always good.

    Marla: 18:58

    Yeah. I mean, there's many ways to target these plantings, depending on if they're near agricultural sites, or if they're near natural areas, big questions remain of how much is enough. So research here at the University of Minnesota by Dr. Dan Kerabu. He's a colleague of mine in the Department of Entomology, he's looking at that question: How much is enough? So if you plant habitat, and there's a lot of natural land, you know, wetlands and other habitat around, you know, planting one acre, does that do anything? Or do you need to plant 50 acres? And conversely, if you're in an area where it's all agricultural land, maybe planting one acre helps, or maybe you have to plan a lot more than that? You know, we don't we don't really know. So, I'm not saying that we know everything. But until as we research, where and how much and which flowers are the most beneficial and how do we plan you know, our plant pollinator plantings more carefully to get the greatest bang for our buck. I think people can just plant whatever they like and wherever they like, because that will be helpful.

    Nicole: 20:07

    Sure. Well, I think that's, you know, a really great way to get started. And everybody's got to start somewhere. So even if it comes out later with research that we're not necessarily planning the perfect plant, I'm sure it'll still have some benefit. And, you know, gardening is so good for us as individuals that I see no reason not to.

    Marla: 20:27

    Exactly. So the state of Minnesota has been really proactive and amazing in my mind about helping pollinators. And a couple years ago, the legislators passed an initiative that they called lawns to legumes. And it doesn't mean it's not limited to just turning your lawn into a clover patch. But it's it's a way to incentivize homeowners and communities to plant pollinator habitat. And the responses were just over whelming. It's managed by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. We call it "BOWSER", B, W, S, R and you go to "BWSR Minnesota Pollinator" and you can see the whole program and the website is just full of information about how to, you know, make a beeline but also how to put in a pollinator garden, or how to put in a meadow or even larger areas, how to prepare the site, how to maintain the site, what seed mixes you can use, you know, it has all kinds of information. And I'm really hoping that other states, take a look at this, and maybe do things similar. So you start incentivizing people to put in pollinator habitat, this is what I would really like to see on a huge farm bill scale is places in our agricultural areas that are not very productive. Instead of incentivizing to plant more corn and soybeans in those particular areas on a farm. Wow, let's put in some pollinator habitat there or something with a long root system to prevent erosion that for me, that would be ideal.

    Nicole: 22:04

    Yeah, that would be wonderful. And you would think it would help the farmers to by maintaining their soil health. But I imagine that's probably the topic in and of itself. Sure. So you mentioned earlier, that you have a website with lots of resources on this. Can you give us that website? I'm sorry, I did not mention that earlier.

    Marla: 22:25

    Sure. BeeLab as one word BeeLab.UMN (as in University of Minnesota).edu.

    Nicole: 22:32

    And we will put that in the show notes as well. And then I imagine that anybody that would need further help, should probably contact their local extension office, I imagine they could be pretty helpful?

    Marla: 22:43

    Extension offices, or like I said, you just search for pollinator habitat, by region. And there's just there's more and more and more information out there all the time.

    Nicole: 22:55

    Perfect. And again, we'll put those links in there. So hopefully, we can help people get their pollinator habitats planted and help supporting the pollinators, both honeybees and local pollinators.

    Marla: 23:07

    Thank you.

    Nicole: 23:08

    Well, thank you so much, Dr. Spivak, I really, really appreciate your time. I think this has been a wonderful episode. And hopefully we can make some positive changes and and I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

    Marla: 23:21

    Thanks for the opportunity!

    Nicole: 23:23

    And for those of you listening, thank you so much for joining us for another episode, and we'll see you again next week.

    Announcer: 23:28

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