Native Bees: The Super (EASY) Pollinators
It's clear at this point that, in order to affect change in our environment for the positive, we need to support our pollinators. We've heard about Colony Collapse Disorder in the news, and when we look outside we can spot the notable difference in the lack of pollinators in our gardens.
At Kraus Farm, we've been beekeeping for a while now. We've raised hygienic honeybees and really enjoy the fresh, local honey they provide us. By trapping and consuming some of the pollen they collect, we've also been able to reduce the effect allergies have on our family as well.
But there are many things that keep the average person from beekeeping or having apiaries, and we hear it all the time:
It's time consuming
Lack of space
HOAs or local ordinances
Fear of stings
All of that is legit. It does take a time commitment and it is expensive upfront (and if you need to replace hives, it can continue to be). A lot of areas, even in this rural spot, don't allow bee hives for one reason or another. And yes--honeybees will sting if you get too complacent or don't know what you're doing, so there's also a learning curve. It's also super fun and sciency and full of adventures. Check out this video of my husband capturing a swarm for our hives:
This isn't to deter you from beekeeping, but there are more efficient, cheaper, and frankly more beneficial ways to support our pollinators. But first, let's talk bees--what's the difference?
Native (solitary) Bees vs. Honey (social) Bees
Social bees live in hives or nests where a female lays the eggs and everyone else supports her and the hive. There's only one true social native bee, and that's the bumblebee. If you've ever seen one of their nests before, you're lucky because their little fuzzy butts are elusive. They don't produce any extra honey, so humans don't farm them.
Honeybees, on the other hand, were first brought here when European settlers colonized America. They produce as much honey as possible, so the surplus is often farmed and consumed or sold. These are the bees we see in apiaries (hives).
Social bees like the honeybee are what I call "sticky" bees. They wet the pollen and get the it to stick to their legs so that they can bring it back to their hives and produce all that honey. As such, not very much comes off when they land on the next flower--it all just kind of sticks to them until they get home. This is super efficient for honey-making, but not for pollination. Pollination does occur, but it's slow and dappled as they visit anywhere from 50-1000 blossoms a day. Their purpose in life is to hoard the pollen, but spreading it is more a byproduct.
Solitary Bees are passive, non-colonizing bees. There are over 4,000 species of solitary bees native to North America, and about 400 of them are here in Virginia. They live in holes in the ground or they make little individual nests for their offspring. Since there is no hive to protect, they are not territorial; they just need a home. They visit about 20,000-100,000 blossoms a day using a dry pollination method. The female bee carries the pollen and nectar on dry hairs on the underside of her abdomen. Because the hair is dry, the pollen easily falls off between blossoms. So instead of taking all of the pollen and nectar from a flower, it skips from one flower to the next. This back and forth movement creates optimal pollination, which can be 30-115% more effective than honey bees.
4000+ native species
A few European species
Docile / Non-territorial
Docile but Territorial
Do not produce honey
Up to 100lbs/hive/year
2-3 hours/year to clean housing and harvest cocoons
Year round: daily or weekly checks; supplement feeding; harvesting; pest control
Safe for all ages
Safe for all ages, but not ideal for all families or housing
So Why Native Bees?
I'm not trying to deter anyone from keeping honeybees, but there's a reason we can't all be beekeepers. It requires time, patience, knowledge, and investment. However, there is still a way we can support our pollinators! By encouraging or even keeping solitary bees, we are supporting our pollinators and providing invaluable support for our native ecosystem. It's way easier, requires very little time, and little-to-no investment.
What You Can Do
Plant a variety of shrubs and perennials that will provide pollen and nectar throughout the season, making your selection based on available light and moisture. 80% of native bees are generalist, meaning they can survive on most flowers, and 20% are specialists that have specific diets and can only fare on 1-3 different types of plants. Since they've co-evolved with this plants in this area, it's always a good idea to provide those if you want to support pollinators. Both generalist and specialists benefit that way!
Most specialist bees in the north-east are drawn to these types of plants. If you're checking out a nursery, don't go for cultivars (the ones with brand-like names in quotes). Native plant nurseries are the idea find for these.
Spring: A number of spring ephemerals and early flowering shrubs are critical to various species of Specialist bees. Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), Trout Lily, (Erythronium americanum), and Common Violets (Viola sororia) all have their own Specialist bees, as do Redbud trees (Cercis canadensis). Generalist bees will benefit too from Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) and Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea).
Summer: All the familiar plants that we plant for butterflies will benefit the 80% of bee species that are generalists. Favorites include Milkweeds (Asclepias sp.), Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia sp.), and Bee Balms (Monarda sp.). Significant shrubs include Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus).
Fall: Asters (Symphyotrichum sp.), Goldenrods (Solidago sp.), and Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus) will provide late season sustenance to bees and butterflies that they can't get elsewhere.
Important note: hybrids and cultivars aren't the best choice and probably won't keep your bees nearby. They are designed for form, not function, and therefore usually contain very little pollen or it is very hard to get to due to showy petals.
Leave it Bee
See what I did there? Leave some undisturbed places for nest sites and over-wintering spots. A small space is better than no space at all! About 70% of native bees, including
the charismatic bumble bees, nest underground and need undisturbed and uncompacted bare dirt. The remaining 30% use cavities – carpenter bees may excavate new cavities, while mason bees will reuse beetle larvae holes in a snag or other small, protected cavities. If possible, leave stems and leaf litter undisturbed through the winter to protect cavity nesters, or at least don't clean up your shrubs and woody perennials until temps are above 50 degrees so that they have time to emerge.
Give Them a Home
Unfortunately, we can't all live in a pollinator oasis. There are HOA rules and city ordinances that dictate what we can and can't leave on our properties a lot of the time. So if you're somebody that has found themselves saying, "I wish I could do that, but I'm not allowed," I have a solution for you.
Solitary bees don't require hives and we can do all of the above things to encourage and protect them, but we can also still "keep" them! So if you have any space at all to hang a native bee house, you can provide shelter and encourage our pollinator population.
Be a Native Beekeeper!
Think of it more like being a good host at a vacation resort. Provide a comfortable place to live, give them a good bed, give them things to do and let them do their thing. But you want them to pick your garden. A way to do that is to give them the best environment--a bee hotel!
They work like this: After emerging from their cocoons, females mate and then start looking for a nesting site. After they select one, they start laying. They lay one egg and day and seal it into the tube with a little bit of pollen, using their material of choice (mud, leaves, etc). The egg hatches and eats that pollen, and then they stay there. They spin a cocoon that hibernates over the winter (usually), and then they emerge when it gets warm again.
Your role in this ordeal is minimal and takes 2-3 hours of dedication a year:
Assemble and hang the bee house
Remove cocoons and place in shed or garage for the winter
Clean or replace the nesting areas
Put cocoons back out in spring
There are a number of awesome solitary bee houses on the market that you can easily hang and get going in no time flat. Crown Bees is an incredible company that uses research-based practices to design and distribute their bee houses. They sell their products a la carte so you can start slow at let them come to you, or you can purchase their kits to get going more quickly. They even come with cocoons to get that cycle going!!
However, it's important to purchase bee houses responsibly no matter where you get them because not doing so can result in the opposite effect--inviting predators and spreading diseases among the bees. So here's what to look for:
Tubes of different sizes. Solitary bees like to be able to tell their "holes" apart from the others, and different species like different sizes. A variety ensures that many bees accept your invitation!
Removable tubes. You have to be able to open up the tubes and clean or replace them to avoid spreading disease. If you want to use blocks instead, make sure you can soak and clean them.
Avoid bamboo. It is not easy to clean and too difficult to open, and they usually all come in the same size. They spread more disease than other mediums and can damage bee larvae.
A 3-4" overhang. This keeps the rain from flooding the tubes and is super important.
Tubes are 5-6" or longer. Anything else they either won't entertain using or it will be picked over by birds and predators.
My Top-3 Choices for Solitary Bee Hotels:
Crown Bees. No matter the size, they have all kinds of options. You can buy the house itself, or add nesting materials or even cocoons. There's something for all kinds of budgets. They also have so many resources to learn more about native beekeeping, and the cocoons they ship actually come from your area.
MasonBeesForSale.com has a well-constructed bee house that has a mix of different sized tubes on a simple design
Rivajam: An affordable house ($36) that looks beautiful and does all the right things! Their reed tubes are a great length and are varied in size and removable. The company supplies refills for future seasons.
Types of Bees
You'll see that there are different size tubes out there for different types of bees. With over 400 species native to the area, we can't always accommodate them all. But here are some of the main contenders of solitary bees:
Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa spp.): these guys love to bore holes in wood. If you want to keep some off your house, try putting some non-hollow wood/tube options in your bee house!
Leafcutter Bees (Megachilidae Family): an important pollinator of fruits, vegetables, and wildflowers. They get their name from cutting small sections of leaves to construct their nests.
Mason Bees (Osmia spp.): smaller bees, often with some blue or green on their body. Their name comes from using mud to seal the cells of their nests.
Sweat Bees (Halictidae Family): very small bees. They get their name from landing on people to lick up perspiration to obtain salt they need to supplement their diet
I may not be a teacher much longer, but I'll always be a teacher at heart. I can't help but think about the value a project like this can bring your family. Whether you homeschool or you just want to appreciate nature with your family, this is something you can do together that has real value. Watching the lifecycle, selecting and planting natives, and harvesting cocoons for the winter would be awesome activities to do with kids of most ages. Best of all, they aren't territorial so they don't sting or bite, even when handled. And on the very rare occasion that they do, it feels like a mosquito bite.
Better yet, build a hotel together! There are about a million plans out there, but here are some materials for learning and building:
"Joe Gardener: The pollinating power of solitary bees and how to attract [them] to your...garden." Fantastic article and it even includes a very educational podcast.
"Native Bees" Local information about types of native bees and how to support them