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Gardening for the Native Bees: 4 Easy Tips For Making Your Garden Solitary Bee Friendly

Creating a Native Bee Paradise

by Sam DollA cavity-nesting native bee.

There are nearly 4,000 species of native bees in the United States alone! With the exception of bumblebees, nearly every native bee species in North America are solitary. They come in a variety of shapes in sizes, from enormous carpenter bees to the tiny Perdita genus.

If you want to learn more about bumblebees, check out our blog about how you can make your garden bumblebee friendly!

Unlike European honeybees or bumblebees, solitary bees are stingless, do not have a queen, live in a colony, or make honey and wax. Instead, female solitary bees build tunnels to use as nests, where they lay their eggs in a series of chambers packed with a pollen and nectar “paste” for their young to munch on when they hatch. Since males will hatch and emerge from the nest first, the mamma bee will lay the females in the deepest portion of the nest and males in the front.

Around 70% of solitary bees are known as “mining bees” because they tunnel underground to build their nests. The other 30% of bees are cavity-nesting bees and will nest in anything from hollow or pithy stems to dead wood, or even abandoned snail shells!

Native bees are incredibly important pollinators. Unlike honeybees, which carry pollen in a “pollen pouch” on their legs, native bees are a bit less tidy, covering their whole bodies in pollen to carry it home. This messiness means they lose much more pollen as they go flower to flower and it actually makes them much more efficient pollinators. Some plants actually need native bees to be pollinated at all! Squash and gourds and any other members of the Cucurbita genus all rely on very specialized Squash Bees!

For more on the Squash Bees, check out our Blog on the topic!

These bees are pretty neat! Here are some tips for Making your garden a native bee paradise!

1.    Preserve and manage nesting sites

One of the most important things you can do to help protect your local native bees is to make sure that your yard is full of potential nesting sites. For mining bees, leave sunny patches of bare earth for nest sites and try to avoid laying down anything that could be a barrier (like landscaping cloth, gravel, or mulch) for bees accessing or emerging from potential existing nest sites. Also, leave unused areas of your garden with old wood, stones, or branches undisturbed as a cavity-nesting bee haven.

You can also install a bee hotel in your yard. Often made from wood or bamboo, these hotels are great for cavity-nesting bees like the Blue Orchard Mason Bee or Leafcutter Bee! You can build one yourself or buy them from reputable suppliers like our friends at The Bees Waggle.

2.    Make your garden a bee buffet

To ensure that your garden is a Mecca for bees of all shapes and sizes, you need to make sure that there is a diversity of forage as well. Plant a mix of perennials and annuals so that you will have a mix of different blooms at the same time throughout the entire growing season. Also, try to have blocks of color in your garden so bees can easily find their way to the flowers they like over and over again, without having to hunt all around for them. Of course, native bees like native plants, so make sure to dedicate a portion (or all) of your garden to wildflowers. The Xerces Society has a variety of region-specific plant guides for pollinators that can get you started toward planting for native bees.

We did the hard work for you and made our Bee Rescue Wildflower Mix that will provide great season-long forage for both native and honeybees!

3.    Lay off the pesticides

Pesticides can’t discriminate between the bad and good bugs. These insecticides pose a particular danger to mining bees since they are often applied to bare ground areas around structures that are ideal nesting sites for these bees. These insecticides also pose the risk of washing into other areas of the garden and contaminating nest sites.

Neonicotinoids, or neonics, are systematic pesticides that live inside the plants that they are trying to protect. These have been particularly harmful to our various pollinator species because they work their way up through the plant into the nectar and pollen that various pollinators are attracted to. Flowers with neonics applied are actually luring bees and other insect pollinators to their deaths!

For tips on how to protect your garden and the bees in it, check out our eBook on Organic Pest Control!

4.    Take a closer look

One of the most important things your can do to protect native bees is to learn! Take some time to watch all the bees that visit and live in your garden. Visit the Xerces Society website and use their identification guides to try to figure out which bees you are seeing. Most importantly, SPREAD THE WORD! Educate your friends and family about all the bees that don’t make the nightly news and how vital they are to our future!

Other Resources

Check out these resources for more about pollinators and how you can help them

Herbs for the Bees

Feeding Bees

by Sam Doll

Bees are responsible for at least one-third of our diet! Since these busy little creatures are so important to the food we eat, we thought it would be nice to spice up their diet (as well as ours) with some ideas to make a bee-friendly pollinator garden!

Here are a few herbs that you and the bees will love to eat this summer

Sage:

Great for giving that classic flavor to meats and, if you are daring, can be a great addition to some classic adult beverages (check out this Sage Bee’s Knees Cocktail). Sage is a hardy perennial that loves well-drained soil and lots of sunshine, which means it does great in a container. This herb also preserves its flavor past flowering, which means it can feed you and the bees at the same time!

Lemon Balm:

A perennial herb native to the Mediterranean, with a wonderfully gentle lemon scent in the mint family.  The fragrant, inconspicuous but nectar-rich white flowers will attract honey bees.  Leave the blooms for the bees for a couple of days, then trim them off to prevent self-sowing.  Lemon Balm is often used as a flavoring in ice cream and lemon balm pesto and in herbal teas.  Use the fresh leaves in chicken or fish dishes as well as with fruit and fruit juices.  The same goes for any member of the mint family (peppermint, spearmint, and catnip included). Basil: Sweet, Thai, cinnamon, lemon, lime, purple, and Christmas are just a few of the basil varieties available to you. Basil is a versatile and easy to grow herb that originated in tropical Asia and has been cultivated for thousands of years.  This warm-weather annual has a refreshing, aromatic flavor that makes it a classic ingredient of many Italian and Southeast Asian dishes. Try using it in a classic Thai basil Soup. Make sure to trim the flowers before they go to seed to prevent the flavor from changing.Green leaves of basil growing in a small pot.

Thyme:

An easy-to-grow, drought-tolerant herb used to flavor food, as an antiseptic, and in essential oils.  The leaves of this warm, pungent spice that can be used fresh or dried in many dishes, marinades, and sauces. For an easy dish, try this oven-roasted potatoes and carrots with thyme recipe. Thyme will attract both bees and butterflies!

Chives:

The surprisingly beautiful chive blooms are as tasty to the bees as they are to us! The blossoms are oniony and spicy. They are often used to make chive blossom vinegar, which is often used in salad dressing, or just can be chopped up and added to any savory dish for some flavor and color!

Purple blooms of the herb, chives.

Lavender:

The most timeless and versatile garden flower around, lavender flowers and leaves can be used in everything from homemade cosmetics to confections. It is especially nice to use in a simple, homemade sugar scrub. The blooms are perfect for attracting all the neighborhood honeybees.Purple lavender blooms with honey bees.

Other great pollinator-friendly herbs are bee balm, chicory, dill, fennel, hyssop, and rosemary.

If you want to get your herb garden jump-started, check out our Essential Herb Garden Collection

Leafcutter Bees are Great Craftswomen!

by TheBeesWaggle

 

Any name with cutter in it seems frightening, but I am here to redeem these Leafcutter Bees of such a stigma by bringing understanding through education.

Leaf-cutter bees are another native species of bees found in most parts of North America. They are smaller than a honeybee, and have darker stripes paired with pastel yellow colored stripes across the abdomen.

The scientific name for this species is Megachilidae, and their name says it all, they do cut leaves for a purpose. They get their name from the way they use pieces of leaves to form egg cells which they then store in long, hollow cavities.  They use a glue-like substance from glands near their mouths to sew pieces of leaves together, which they have carved from leaves of lilacs and other broad-leafed plants. The shape is that of a half-moon, and the size of the piece they take is very consistent. They only take as much as they need, never destroying the plants from which they take the leaf fragments.

.Leafcutter Bees

Half-moon cuts on my lilac bush.

Leafcutter Bees

A row of beautifully crafted nesting cells from my leafcutter bee house.

Leafcutter bees are a solitary breed, like the mason bee. This translates into a more docile creature with nothing to defend but her life. So the only time she would sting would be to defend her life, and this is a rare occurrence, making her a very welcoming guest in your own yard!  I have spent many minutes peering into the nesting blocks while these busy bees fly in and out going about their nesting business.  I never once felt threatened by them, and in fact, felt ignored, entirely!  This is also true of the nature of mason bees.

However, unlike mason bees, leaf-cutter bees will do their own excavating of soft rotting wood, or holes in thick stemmed plants, and in any conveniently located crevice.  They also like having conveniently located nesting blocks with inviting holes as well, and we had success with them nesting in ours this summer! Nesting blocks need protection, so they must be paired with a nice house, and we have many options!

Like mason bees, leafcutter bees are very good pollinators compared to the honey bee.  One leaf-cutter bee can pollinate at least what 20, and even up to 40, honey bees can pollinate. Leaf-cutter bees do not have pollen carrying baskets on their hind legs, but they do carry lots of pollen via static cling created by the hairs on their abdomen. The way they visit flowers is much like the mason bees, diving into the pollen as they fly from flower to flower. This techniques sets them apart from honeybees and makes them very effective pollinators.

Finally, leaf-cutter bees do not make honey, but they cultivate quite the production of food sources through their fierce pollinating efforts, and it would be foolish not to recognize this talent useful to us as humans. Like the honeybee, leafcutter bees, along with all other species of bees, need our help!  Become a great host to these fascinating creatures, along with other species of pollinators, by setting up a complete habitat for them next Spring!

Leafcutter Bees

Our Native Bees

by Sandy Swegel

 

Ever feel like you’re doing all the work and everybody else is getting all the credit?  That was the great scenario I watched unfold yesterday.  It was a warm sunny day and there were hundreds of honey bees buzzing loudly in a hot pink crab apple tree.  Such a sight and sound is a crowning point of Spring and gives us hope for honeybees.  But I was working in the rock garden nearby pulling weeds out of a mini-hedge of yellow Basket of Gold. (Aurinia saxatilis)  While everybody else was watching the crab apple full of honey bees, there was one solitary native bee happily feeding and pollinating an entire row of bright yellow alyssum growing over the rocks.  This native bee wasn’t getting all the glory but he was a Rock Star.

Native bees are often much smaller than honey bees. They don’t make honey for us.  They have evolved alongside native plants so they prefer to feed on native plants rather than human-made hybrids.  The native bee I watched wasn’t a hive builder but makes a solitary nest just for itself in the dirt or somewhere in a little hole in an old dead tree.

 

You can encourage native bees to live in your garden by planting native plants and by building little nests the native bee likes.  You can make a small practical native bee nest out of a box and hollow tubes, or you can go all out and make some garden art as we see in these pictures.

Or just honor the native bee by noticing it.  Next time you’re in the garden, look for the little bee that’s at least half the size of all the other bees you see.  That’s one of our unsung pollinator heroes.

How to Build your Own Native Bee Nest:
http://www.xerces.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/nests_for_native_bees_fact_sheet_xerces_society.pdf

Photo Credits
http://landscaping.about.com/od/Deer-Proof-Plants/tp/deer-resistant-perennials.htm
nativebeeconservancy.org

 

 

Going the Extra Mile for Pollinators

by Sandy Swegel

You know the basics for saving bees and other pollinators:

- Create a native plant wildflower habitat that provides season-long sources of pollen and nectar.

 – Provide a water source if a natural one is not available.

 – Stop your own use of pesticides that affect bees.

Just doing those three things will do a lot to invite pollinators to your yard and give them safe harbor.

This week, I’ll be posting about people and organizations who do even more…who go the extra mile for pollinators, sometimes with the simplest measures.

Winter Feeding Pollen Patties My neighbor Kathy has kept bees and for many years on a large suburban lot and like many beekeepers has endured the increased death of hives in recent years.  Going into this winter, she was very pessimistic about one of her hives that had almost no honey stores.  Since she had lost healthy hives in the past, she wasn’t too hopeful about a weak hive.  However, she found a new product for feeding bees in winter….rather than just putting out sugar water, she fed her bees Winter Pollen Patties. She used a product by Dadent and simply put the flat sheets of pollen substitute right on top of the bees.  When this Spring turned into a disaster for pollinators (multiple late freezes meant no spring blossoms on trees, a significant source of food for bees and other pollinators), Kathy continues to put the pollen patties in her hives.  Both hives are thriving the best she has seen in years.  And both hives are making babies.

It wasn’t a lot of work to go the extra mile of feeding bees in winter.  You have to learn to think about beekeeping from a bee’s perspective:  What does the bee need to eat?  The protein of pollen, not just sugar.  Just like humans can’t survive on soda.

Once you get your pollinator habitat growing, start thinking about what the next extra mile is you can do for pollinators in your garden.  Perhaps it’s nesting sites for wild bees. Perhaps it’s educating a neighbor about pesticides.  Let’s share our knowledge about what are the extra things that make a difference.

For more info on scientific methods for feeding bees in winter, check out “Scientific Beekeeping” http://scientificbeekeeping.com/fat-bees-part-2/

For a video on how to feed pollen patties:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBZCL33fNHY

Honey Bees vs Native Bees

by Becky Hansen

Bees are one of our agricultural industry’s most important resources and indeed one of our planet’s most important resources and the survival of the human race is in the hands of the pollinators. The pollinator issue is a hot topic these days, but, there is more to pollinating a crop than meets the eye.  There is great complexity in the relationship between the bees and the plants in an agricultural setting.  The needs of the plant species and the pollinators must match up pretty closely.  When it is all working together everybody benefits!  The farmer has successful crop yields and the bees are happy, healthy and well fed.  The flower structures, pollination method, pollen size and shape, nectar content are just some of the plant qualifications that a bee species looks for when ‘shopping’ for food and nectar.

Some bees such as the European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) are polylectic which means that they will be able to find good food sources from many different plant species.  That is why a wildflower mix of several species is really great for the Honey Bee, as the time when nectar and pollen sources are available is lengthened.  Other bees are oligolectic, like the Alfalfa Leafcutter Bee (Megachile rotundata), that is very picky about the plant species that it chooses for its nourishment.  In fact, these bees primarily like alfalfa.  The Honey Bee has specialized pockets on its hind legs where it stores the pollen which it then takes back to the nest for food storage.  The Leafcutter Bee has special hairs on its front where it collects the pollen that is used and stored in the nest where the eggs are laid.  The honey bee is a social bee in that it lives in colonies with males and females with differentiated duties.  This allows for the nests to be collected and moved to various crop locations.  The leafcutter bee is a solitary bee in that, after mating, all females, individually, collect pollen and nectar and build their own nest for eggs and protection. But because they prefer to build their nests in close proximity to other leafcutter bees, they can be lured to man-made nests and can also be transported to other crop locations.

Both of these bee species are so different from each other but both are commercially used to pollinate different crops for just that reason.  They don’t compete with each other for the resources available. Take a bit of time to learn more about the pollinators in your pollinator gardens and look at the flowers that they most frequently go to for food.  Find out their ‘favorites’ so you can plant more of those.  All l those hardworking critters are “‘busy as bees” helping to ‘save the human race’ by making food and agriculture products for you and me.

Watch a movie on setting up a new Honey Beehive: http://youtu.be/tqjP3-6prwM Great learning video about the lifecycle of bees: http://youtu.be/sSk_ev1eZec Watch a Leafcutter Bee making a brood cell: http://youtu.be/EjsZ419lmMY

Making a Leafcutting bee house: http://youtu.be/chCu-pQxpB0

leafcutter bee photo: http://www.ars.usda.gov/images/docs/14415_14609/ALCB1.gif

How to get your Neighbors and Friends Interested in Pollinators

by Sandy Swegel

You have finally come to understand how important pollinators are and why we need to protect them.  One of the challenges we who value pollinators face is how to get your neighbors and friends interested in pollinators too.  Unfortunately, we’ll start to ramble about how bad chemicals are or how GMO crops harm the environment and if we pay attention we’ll notice our listeners’ eyes are glazing over and they’re looking for a quick exit.  Even with other people interested in the same topics, it’s not long till people get that bored “You’re preaching to the choir” look. When you’re passionate you want other people to be passionate too, and maybe take to the streets in pursuit of your cause…but that rarely happens.

So what can you do to educate others about protecting pollinators?

I’ve learned a lot from watching Niki, a member of our garden group, over the years.  Over time she had inspired many people to put in pollinator habitats or at least to stop pouring chemicals on their lawns.  And she did it without preaching.  So taking inspiration from her over the years, here’s an action list on how to gently inspire others to protect pollinators and the environment.

Make a demo garden in your front yard.

It was a slow start for Niki.  She lived in a typical suburban neighborhood and her decision to turn her front yard from perfect green grass to a xeric native habitat caused some upset in the ‘hood. At first, people thought she was bringing property values down with all those weeds.  But she kept the garden tidy and explained every plant she grew to anyone who stopped by.  She invited the kids over to watch butterflies.  She explained to people who asked why she was doing what she did.  Her friendly attitude and a “come pick out of my garden anytime” attitude built relationships.  Neighbors on their mowers noticed they were out doing yard work every weekend and she wasn’t.  Then she started to tell people how much money she was saving by not watering the lawn and using chemicals.  That changed a few people’s minds. She added in the info that you could protect your trees without the expensive sprays the tree companies wanted to do. Soon the whole neighborhood was just a little more pollinator friendly.

Teach the kids

Kids have open minds.  Have an inviting garden with butterflies everywhere, and kids will stop to look around.  They’ll ask questions and they’ll tell their families about the cool stuff they learned today.

Give away free stuff.

It’s pretty easy to collect seed from native plants or to put seed you have in little envelopes to give away.  People in the neighborhood learned they could get free seeds for lots of low-water flowering plants if they stopped at Niki’s.  They also learned they could get free plants.  She started seeds in her living room or dug up self-seeding plants and put them in tiny pots and gave them to anyone who would learn how to take care of them. Soon, that’s native food sources up and down the block.

Offer Free Public Classes

Soon the neighbors had all the free seeds and plants they could use.  So the next step was to offer free classes to the public. Our library offers meeting rooms for public groups for free so soon Niki was offering 2-hour Saturday classes on “Chemical-free gardening” or “Make your own natural cleaning products.” Another 2-hour Saturday project was the free Seed Swap in January which invited everyone to bring their extra seeds and swap with one another.  Gardeners meeting other gardeners is often all it takes.  Lots of people came to classes because they wanted to save money or have a safer environment for their kids.  They all left with that info and with an understanding of why chemicals can really hurt bees and other pollinators and how there’s an easier way to do things.  Not preachy…but well-researched information.  A heartfelt story about the impact of pesticides in Kansas on monarch butterflies all over the world helps people want to do the right thing.

Be generous with your time to talk to others

Soon gardeners and community members learned Niki and now her gardening circle friends would come to talk to their neighborhood association or school about native bees and butterflies.  Or they’d look at your suffering tomato plant and suggest a natural home-made remedy.  Everyone got on an email group together and ended up teaching each other about natural gardening and making homes for pollinators. Local media people saw the library classes and now had someone to call when they needed a radio show or newspaper article.

Another Reason to Love Dandelions

by Sandy Swegel

I may never pull another dandelion again.  Well, at least not in my yard.  But it was an utter joy to learn something new about dandelions yesterday while enjoying my morning coffee and looking out the window.  We’ve had a very late Spring with heavy snows and everyone is worried about the bees having enough food.  Dandelions started blooming seriously last week and I sat drinking coffee and watching at least forty bees feed on the patch of dandelions in pasture grass outside my window.  And then came the delight. A tiny house wren…one of those little birds that live by the hundreds in tree or thickets…flew down and delicately started pulling on the puffball of a dandelion seedhead.  With great industry, the bird pulled off two or three of the seeds at a time (and dandelion seeds are tiny) and teased them from the hairy chaff.  He stayed pulling off the seed and threshing them for several minutes.  Naturally by the time I got the camera he was back in the tree chirping away.

There’s so much beauty and bounty around us every moment.  All these years I’ve been gardening and I never noticed how much little birds depended on finding weed seeds.

 http://www.birdsinbackyards.neth

Taking Care of the Bees and other Creatures this Fall

What’s your favorite flower this year?  That’s the question our local gardening magazine posed to its readers this issue.  Many candidates came to mind, but I realized my criteria in Fall for a good flower is one that blooms late to feed the bees and other pollinators that are still around scrambling for nectar and pollen to sustain them or their babies through winter.

So my favorite flowers right now include the dandelions that have responded to our recent rains with a bloom worthy of Spring.  Every time I see a dandelion now, I don’t respond with a desire to pull it, but with a word of encouragement because it’s not a weed when it has a happy bee gorging in the middle of the flower.

Other favorites that are feeding bees and other creatures:

Cosmos are tough annuals, and still blooming despite some frosty weather.
Scabiosa has won my garden awards for several years for being the last flower blooming in November.  It’s one flower I keep deadheading instead of leaving the seed because I know it makes new flowers as long as it can.
Violas and Pansies planted now will make flowers to please me and the bees during warm spells this winter.

As always, there is one really important thing pollinators and especially bees need in Fall:

WATER.  At my house, the seasonal ditch dried up in August, and standing water is rare in our arid climate.  I keep water in the birdbath and in the flat little saucer with pebbles for the bees.  I notice signs that other bigger creatures like the squirrels and rabbits and field mice sneak water when I’m not watching from the bird bath top that I left sitting on the ground. I got pretty angry with the ravenous rabbit over-population this year, but when I see one lonely bunny hunkered down in the dry leaves under the trees, I can’t help but leave water out for her.  I know I’ll be rewarded with hungry baby bunnies in the Spring, but as the cold winds of Fall send chills through the gardener, my heart goes out to all the creatures who live outdoors during the long winter season.

Squash Bees

by Sandy Swegel

My friend and local pollinator expert Niki fretted greatly this Spring because there weren’t any bees in her yard.  She grows her native plants and large vegetable gardens in her yard that is surrounded by typical perfect looking suburban lawns. Despite her pleas with neighbors, they maintain suburban perfection by pouring pesticides and synthetic fertilizers on their lawns, and over time, the bee count in her yard has dropped precipitously.

But there was no fretting during a recent tour of her garden.  There were still very few honeybees but the garden was abuzz with many native bees and native fly pollinators.

Niki eagerly led us over to her huge squash patch.  She did the usual humble gardener thing of apologizing for her garden and how poorly the plants were doing.  Naturally, her plants were double the size of anything in our yards. We walked right into the squash bed as she gently lifted a giant leaf so we could see…a “Squash Bee.”  With great animation, she described how one bee comes early in the morning and throws itself completely over the pollen…and then proceeds to eat all day long.  This bee seems oblivious to us and looked like it was lounging in its own little opium den, covered in pollen and eating as much as it could. Niki lowered her voice and said, “Sometimes there are two bees.”  The male comes first and then is joined by a female…and the two of them spend the day in a frenzy of mating and eating, mating and eating (she watched). Once they finish one blossom, they moved to the next one.

There are two genera of native squash bees, Peponapis and Xenoglossa, and they are specialist bees. Cucurbits are all they pollinate.  And they are very resourceful and start pollinating earlier in the morning before the honey bees are even awake.  So take a look under your leaves one morning and peer deep into squash blossoms.  In areas with healthy squash bee populations, there can be as many as one bee per every five blossoms.  Another marvel of the natural world….hidden in plain view before us.

Of course, while you are peeking under giant squash leaves, don’t forget to look for that pest of the squash kingdom…the squash bug…and pick it off and throw it away.

The International squash bee survey: http://www.ars.usda.gov/Research/docs.htm?docid=16595