By Jimmy Rogers

Jimmy Rogers
Jimmy Rogers is an avid native gardener who is also a member of the Laurel Environmental Affairs Committee.

The image of the bee is everywhere. T-shirts and coffee mugs proclaim their owners to be queen bees. Hexagons decorate honey-colored phone cases. Bakeries and coffee shops invoke the bee’s busy, buzzy nature.

Yet, that superstar bee isn’t one of our bees — not one of over 4,000 species native to the United States and Canada. Instead, it’s the honeybee (Apis mellifera), a long-ago domesticated species that originated in Asia, migrated westward and was introduced to North America by Europeans in the 1600s. In fact, the honeybee is an invasive species, as their comparatively massive hives can gobble up the pollen and nectar on which our native bees depend.

Who are our native bees?

While native bees may not make harvestable amounts of honey, they perform a wide variety of services for us. For instance, prior to the widespread use of honeybees in agriculture, native bees pollinated many of our food crops, such as cherries, blueberries, apples, squashes and okra. Even today, many crops such as tomatoes require the extra-strong wings of a bumblebee to shake loose the pollen — a phenomenon known as buzz pollination.

native gardening
Two Spotted Bumble Bee (Bombus bimaculatus)
Courtesy of USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Over 500 species of native bee reside in the Mid-Atlantic region, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Carpenter bees and bumblebees are among the largest bees and sport familiar black and yellow stripes. On the other end of the spectrum, sweat bees, which shine like metallic green jewels, can be as small as a quarter of an inch. Most native bees live in solitary holes in the ground or alongside neighboring bees, a bit like a bee condo. These subterranean queens socialize far less than honeybees, busily foraging pollen for their own baby bees. Most will also not defend their homes or flowers from humans, are much less likely to sting us than honeybees and do not induce allergic reactions.

The next time you’re walking down Montgomery Street in old town Laurel, take note of the redbud trees. If you see large, circular pieces of leaf missing, then a leafcutter bee has harvested material to build its nest. Mason bees and carpenter bees will build their homes from mud or rotten wood, respectively. Those who build nests above ground often hollow out old plant stems before packing them with their preferred nesting material.

Bee-friendly practices

The easiest and most rewarding way to be a friend to native bees is to plant native plants. Our farmers now rent honeybee boxes to pollinate their fields because we have destroyed nearby woodland and meadow bee habitats. Growing native flowers that produce pollen and nectar in your garden or on your balcony can help a new spring queen find enough food to establish her nest. Some bees only feed on a single type of plant, so planting a variety of species will multiply your impact.

Pesticides are a no-go in bee-friendly gardens. According to Doug Tallamy, an entomologist at the University of Delaware and author of Bringing Nature Home, residential mosquito sprays only kill a small percentage of mosquitoes but kill bees, butterflies and other insects we can’t afford to lose. Tallamy recommends a low-cost, homemade mosquito trap instead. You can make your own by filling a five-gallon bucket half-full with water and adding a few leaves or weeds. Lean a sturdy stick against the inside, so larger animals can escape if they fall in. Into this place a quarter of a Mosquito Dunk, for sale at any hardware store, which is full of BT toxin. BT is harmless to adult insects, but when mosquitoes lay their eggs in the stagnant water, the BT will kill larvae, stopping the next generation. Replace the water and the dunk once a month until it gets cold outside.

When fall arrives, you can leave the leaves to support our bees and many other insects, such as butterflies, moths and lightning bugs. A large number of pollinators complete their life cycles in leaf litter. Avoid chopping up your leaves, as that will destroy most overwintering insects. Instead, leave whole leaves on your garden beds and lawn. The leaves will break down in their own time and return valuable organic matter to soil. If leaves accumulate so densely that you can’t see your grass at all, rake some into your garden beds in place of commercial mulch. Not only will this practice support pollinators, the whole-leaf mulch will help suppress early weeds in the spring.

Expanding our bee knowledge

Here in Laurel, we live just down the road from the Patuxent Research Refuge, home to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab (BIML). Known around town as the bee lab, it’s one of the nation’s foremost research facilities for studying native bees. The researchers there have amassed an incredible inventory of high-resolution bee images, helping to document and define our evolving knowledge of North American bee diversity. At the moment, they are working with local organizations such as Laurel for the Patuxent ( and the National Wildlife Federation’s Sacred Grounds program ( to grow native plants for new planting projects and residential giveaways. Much of the information in this article was sourced from the BIML website, which you can find on

If you’re looking for a great summer read, consider Our Native Bees, by Paige Embry. Featuring images from the BIML, Embry first digs deep into our agricultural relationship with honeybees and surveys the major groups of native bees, exploring whether they might have a bigger role to play in the future of our food production. 

On Saturday, June 17, College Park’s Bee City USA committee is collaborating with Bee Campus Maryland to host a pollinator resource fair atthe University of Maryland campus from 1 to 4 p.m, at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center and screening the documentary film, My Garden of a Thousand Bees, from 1 to 2:30 p.m, including a Q&A afterward. The city of Laurel is also a Bee City USA affiliate; the program, which is run by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, promotes pollinator-friendly communities throughout the country. You can sign up to learn more about local activities at