Have you ever had the experience where giving a name to something clarifies and legitimizes fuzzy mental notions? Bee Watching has done that for me and I’m eternally grateful to Jeannie Pham for introducing me to the concept.
Bee watching is really nothing more than spending some time in your garden on a summer day watching the bees. Not daydreaming or planning your lunch, but actually watching the bees.
A couple years ago I had the pleasure of touring Jeannie’s garden, which she describes as a haven for pollinators, a wildlife friendly patch surrounded by city. As part of her gardening routine, she described how once she’s finished the heavier garden jobs, she likes to put on her wide-brimmed hat and squat down to bee level and watch them buzz around in the heat of the day.
When I heard “bee watching” something clicked for me. I’ve always liked to pause and watch insects, but had never put a formal mental frame around it. And without a frame, watching insects was neither getting a job done nor fully relaxing in the shade, and so didn’t count towards “what one does in the garden.” But by naming it, mental permission was granted, and I’ve been immersed in a wonderful new world ever since, one that you can probably see yourself in your own garden or a nearby park, this very afternoon.
Easier than bird watching (because you don’t have to go very far), but providing the same sense of discovery, bee watching reveals a whole world parallel to and interconnected with our human one. It can literally change how you see the world and the nature outside your door.
Here’s how to do it. Bee watching isn’t complicated. Wait until the sun is out and the day is warm (bees are more active mid-day), find a patch of flowers and get comfortable. Your arrival might frighten some bees, but once you’re still, the insects will return. And then just watch them. You may be surprised (I know I was) to notice lots more types of bees than just honey bees and bumble bees. There are some that are about the same size as honey bees, but are a completely different color, and are way fuzzier. And there are the teeny sweat bees, named because they’re fond of landing on people to lick their sweat. (That’s never happened to me.) In California alone there are over 1,500 different species of bee!
A native California striped sweat bee (I think) covered in pollen on my flowering mizuna plant
Though you don’t have to be an entomologist to enjoy watching the insects in your garden, I’ve found this guide from the Xerces society to be extremely helpful. It’s a citizen science brochure to be used in conjunction with expert training in a formal program to monitor bees in California. But even without the protocols and the training, the information (and especially the pictures on pages 12 – 31) is an invaluable overview of how to distinguish bees from wasps and flies and from one another.
The features scientists use to distinguish bees are size, color, stripes, hair (how much and where it is), pollen carrying (where, what type, and how much), antennae, and flying pattern. Even just keeping that list in mind as you watch helps you see more.
This tiny creature on a 1/2" erigeron flower may actually be a wasp because it looks to me like the striped pattern is part of its exoskeleton, rather than made from hair, as it is with bees. But it's so tiny I can't tell for sure!
The other thing that you notice, of course, as soon as you’re watching bees, is the butterflies. Watching carefully, you’ll see their long tongues uncoil into a flower, and you’ll see the wings’ intricate patterns when they rest. I’ve been watching the cabbage white butterflies lay eggs on the broccoli and kale seedlings I have on the patio where we’ve been eating on warm days. All through lunch, they come and go, landing on top of the leaves and wrapping their behinds around underneath to deposit an egg.
Cabbage white butterfly depositing an egg on a broccoli seedling
Cabbage white butterfly methodically laying eggs throughout my Ethiopian Kale seedlings.
I go around once a day and take the eggs off the leaves. And I feel bad doing it, after having seen these butterflies work so diligently to lay those eggs. But I’d like my seedlings to become broccoli someday! Several were eaten almost to the ground before I figured out it was the caterpillars. And with cabbage whites outnumbering all the other butterflies in our garden, I don’t think their population is suffering.
The natural result of even a little bit of bee watching is to want to plant more flowers, to have more bees to watch. My 5-year-old has been enjoying our daily session with the bugs, and is excited now to plant for pollinators. Once curiosity is sparked, asking the internet “What should I plant to attract bees and butterflies?” is the easy part.
Honey bee on a scabiosa bloom
The top 4 plants we’ve noticed for attracting bees and butterflies in our garden are calendula, scabiosa, borage, and milkweed (ours isn’t in flower yet, but it’s the only plant where a monarch will lay its eggs, and we’re always checking for caterpillars). Fun fact: Borage is such a great bee plant because it refills its nectar once every 2 minutes, as compared to once a day for many flowers.
Honey bee on borage
I hope this post helps you give yourself permission to spend half an hour this weekend doing nothing but watching the bees.
(By the way, all these images are from the last couple days in my garden. It’s been a fun challenge to try to catch these fast-moving creatures with a camera. The majority of the pictures came out blurry, but by chance a few came out well!)