You may have heard stories in the news that bees are in danger. Their numbers are declining, less natural habitat, pesticides, etc. While it’s nice to try and “save the bees,” it isn’t honey bees that are in danger. It’s their wild cousins we need to worry about.
Bees Aren’t All The Same
Most species of bees are nearly unrecognizable compared to their domesticated relatives. Of about 4,000 species, most are ground dwellers that aren’t aggressive and don’t exhibit hive behavior. These are known as solitary bees, and they are the wild pollinators that are most sensitive to certain farming practices and encroachment on their natural environment.
So Who are These Other Bees?
Well, we’ve all heard of bumble bees. They’re interesting in their own right, living in underground burrows and following a fascinating lifestyle. They don’t make comb, but rather these cute little wax pots that look like, well, honey pots.
But what of the others?
There are numerous small bees that are more responsible for pollination than any honeybee could ever hope to be. These guys do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to crops, yet they get almost none of the credit.
Mason Bees are by far the best known of small bees, thus their name in the title of this article. They are about half an inch long with big eyes. They build their nests out of mud, thus the name.
Leafcutter Bees pollinate alfalfa, blueberries, carrots, onions, and fruits. Just like leafcutter ants are known for cutting up bits of leaf and using it to construct nests, these little guys take cuttings from trees such as redbud and use them in their nests and brood chambers. They range in size from a quarter of an inch to a full inch, so there’s a lot of variation.
There are also squash bees, blueberry bees (bet you can guess what they pollinate), sweat bees and more.
Blue Collar Bees
All of these solitary bees are excellent pollinators that are harder working than honey bees. Why? Because they gotta pay their own bills, so to speak. While some will nest in the same location with other solitary bees, they work on their own to secure food, water, and lay eggs. They don’t make massive hives like honey bees. They work their whole life to ensure their offspring will live on, and they go it alone.
Mason Bee Home, or Nursury?
Mason bees and leafcutters are especially useful in the garden, so keeping them around is a good idea. They don’t normally sting unless crushed, and they pollinate many more flowers than honey bees. In fact, wild bees are many times better at pollinating when it comes to native plants.
Their natural reproductive method is to drop an egg in a hollow tube, such as a plant stem, and then pack a cell around it with some food and nutrients before capping the cell shut. Then they’ll lay another egg and repeat the process.
In urban environments, and even in the burbs, we don’t let our weeds get big enough to form a woody stem appropriate for these tiny pollinators, so they move to areas where they can thrive, or they start dying for overuse of pesticides and lack of local food sources.
But you don’t have to let a bunch of goldenrod run wild in your backyard to help the bees. You can make them an artificial nest that they will love just as much. In fact, once you provide it, you’ll have more of these wonderful little guys around. Just be careful with the Roundup on your weeds. You can also plant beautiful flowers such as bee balm to give them something to munch on.
All You Need is Some Hollow Tubes and a Box
There are a few conditions you want to meet. The material for the tubes should be breathable. Paper tubes or natural hollow stems from woody shrubs work excellently. They should be in a container that will keep them out of the weather and that container should be secured so it doesn’t blast about too much in the wind. Each tube should be about six inches long and between 3/16ths of and inch and 3/8ths of an inch in diameter. You can combine the container and the tubes by simply drilling some deep holes in a block of wood, and using the block as your bee house. Be sure to mix and match hole size for different bees.
For natural stems, goldenrod, wingstem, goat’s beard, blackberries, raspberries, mint family canes, cattail, and even some thistles make good nursing sites for tiny bee larvae. They don’t cost anything and many plants found by wet areas or woody shrubs from open fields will work. The hard part is picking them after the pith has rotted out, but before the woody straw starts to decay too much and turns soft. Try on a warm day in the early fall after a dry spell. Don’t use bamboo because it doesn’t breathe.
Put all the tubes in your container, hang it, and wait. If there are bees around, they will plug up the little tubes with larvae which hatch after winter. Then you can clean out the box and use it again.
That’s it. Your bee home is ready.
Even though they’re solitary, most bees won’t mind packing their kids into the same nursery, and we can bring these wonderful pollinators back into areas where they otherwise can’t reproduce, ensuring better harvests for the backyard garden and helping to ward off extinction of these wonderful critters.
Bees are important. They are responsible for pollinating about one third of the food you eat. They even pollinate alfalfa and other protein rich plants that are fed to livestock, so even your meat depends on bees. Learning more about them and how you can help is a good way to ensure the continued existence of these helpful insects, as well as the food you eat. Honey bees do a lot, but they can’t do everything, and there are some plants that simply don’t produce without wild bees.
Help some bees today by starting a bee house.
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