Honey bees get all the attention.But these honey-making agricultural workers aren’t the only bees doing the tedious but necessary work of pollination. Hundreds of species of native bees were on the job long before honey bees arrived with colonialists in the 1600s.
You’ve seen native bees even if you don’t know it. The distinctive bumblebee is a native species, for example, and you’ll notice other species flying around once you know what you’re looking for. Along with birds, bats, butterflies, beetles and flies, more than 300 species of native bees are an important part of ecosystems in our region — even the one in your backyard.
“You definitely want to be seeing pollinators,” said Tim Hatten, a Moscow entomologist.
Pollinators are a vital part of the plant world and a good measure of the health of an ecosystem. If they’re not around, Hatten said, something is wrong. And studies seem to indicate this is becoming a problem.
“Most of the big studies say pollinators are in trouble all around the globe,” Hatten said.
Overall, he said, there is a loss of abundance, species and genetic diversity in pollinators. This is driven largely by a loss of habitat, nesting sites, quality food sources, disease, pests and pesticides, which “hammer pollinators,” Hatten said.
The good news is that people who want to help pollinators like native bees can do something about it right in their own backyard.
Unlike honeybees, which are social and need to be managed, most native bees are solitary bees. They’ll take care of themselves if you give them a place to do it. Native bees will typically nest in in tunnels in the ground or cavities in wood or other materials. They eat, mate, lay their eggs, provisioning them with all the nutrients they’ll need and then they leave. One generation never meets the other.
These bees rarely sting, and if you give them good food sources, a place to nest and a safe environment, chances are you’ll be finding more of them in your backyard before long.
Things that bring all the bees to the yard
Here are six easy things you can do to make your yard a place where native bees thrive:
- Create a cavity nest for bees. Make a simple nesting site by drilling holes in untreated wood. See below.
- Be lazy in your lawn care. What some of us call weeds, bees call a gourmet meal. Dandelions, clover and other “weeds” are excellent sources of nectar and pollen. Let these flowers bloom for a few days before mowing.
- Leave some bare, undisturbed dirt. Ground nesting bees need uncultivated, unmulched ground that is safe from disturbance and pesticide spray.
- Plant some native plants. Because many garden plants are bred for show and don’t provide much nectar or pollen, native plants — things like fruit trees, lavenders, lomatiums, goldenrod, asters — tend to be a better food source for bees. Check with your local nursery for more pollinator-friendly ideas. Choose early, mid- and late-season bloomers and plant them in clumps or groupings to make it easier for bees to find. Bees love aromatic flowers that are yellow, white, pink, blue and purple; red roses are a favorite too.
- Minimize pesticide exposure. Don’t use pesticides or opt for botanical insecticides, which generally break down faster in the environment. Don’t apply pesticides while a plant is flowering, and wait to spray until evening when pollinators are less active.
- Avoid using systemic insecticides and neonicotinoids. These pesticides are especially toxic to bees because they are taken up by plants and spread at a cellular level to all parts of the plant — including nectar and pollen. Neonicotinoids are a type of systemic insecticide that does neurological damage, which decreases mental ability, memory and reproduction. Read labels when you’re looking for products for your lawn and garden.
Meet the bees:
Appearance: Dark colored blues, blacks and greens with minimal hair, often iridescent, somewhat thick
Active season: Early, emerging in cool weather, with adults gone by mid-June
Nesting type: cavity nesting, solitary
Other info: There are 30 to 40 species of mason bees in our region
Appearance: Golden browns and yellows, lots of hair, banded abdomen, female carries pollen on the underside of her broad abdomen
Active season: Summer
Nesting type: cavity nesting, solitary
Other info: As their name implies, these bees cut leaves with their mandibles, which are used to seal their nests. If you find a leaf or petal with a disc-shaped cut in it, you’re probably seeing the work of a leaf-cutter bee.
Appearance: Very large and fuzzy, with black, orange and yellow banded abdomens
Active season: Spring to fall
Nesting type: burrows in ground, social
More info: If you like tomatoes, you want these bees around — tomatoes are almost exclusively pollinated by bumble bees, Hatten said.
Appearance: Similar to honey bee
Active season: Early, emerging in cool weather with adults gone by mid-June
Nesting type: soil nesting, solitary
Appearance: smaller, often have greenish metallic coloration and a banded abdomen
Season: Spring to fall
Nesting type: generally ground nesting, range from solitary to social
More info: These important pollinators are drawn to bowl-shaped and open-ray flowers like daisies and blanket flowers — but since they’re small, they can access a variety of flowers.
How to build a native bee nest
- Get a scrap piece of untreated wood that is at least 4 inches deep. A 4- by 4-foot board or a log will work fine.
- Use a 5/16 inch drill bit and drill several holes in the wood. Make sure the hole is at least 3½ inches deep — you can drill deeper, but don’t drill all the way through the wood. Use different sizes of drill bits to accommodate bees that might be slightly smaller or larger.
3. Place your nest in a good location. The ideal spot is an east-facing location where the nest will get morning sun and shade in the afternoon.
- Wait for your first sealed hole. Mason bees begin laying eggs in spring and will lay five to six eggs in a row if the hole is deep enough. Eggs will be laid by June, and the bee will seal the final egg with mud. The eggs develop over the summer, pupate and emerge from their nest the following spring.
- Watch for an empty hole. Males are laid closest to the entrance and exit first, getting strong while they wait for females to emerge. The bees mate and cycle begins again.
Other Local Earth Day events
LEWISTON – The 13th annual Lewis Clark Recyclers’ Earth Day Celebration will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. today on Capital and Third streets. This celebration features food, beverages, live entertainment, games, activities and more.
KAMIAH – A family Earth Day celebration will be 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Friday on Fifth Street between Main and Idaho streets. Activities include creating art from recycled materials, face painting, games and displays about forests, soils, water and more.