Attracting native bees - The pollination payoff

Friday, May 9, 2003

Even though I explained why I was drilling holes into logs, my wife was sure I had lost it. It didn't help matters that the logs were in a brush pile and that I was taking time from other house hold chores. To make things worse, I wanted solitary bees to use the holes and expected zero honey payment in return. There are definite benefits to native bees; unfortunately my wife was stumbling on the insanity of attracting stinging insects.

So picture me, if you will, using a drill with three extension cords stretched from the house to reach a brush pile. My lovely wife strolled down the hill to ask me "What in the world are you doing, or do I want to know?" Due to a thick skull I replied, "Look, if I had a cordless drill this would not be necessary. I had to use all three extension cords just to reach this far."

Observing I did not understand her question, she said, "No, why are you drilling into that old log?" That registered. Happily, I began to explain I wanted to make nesting cavities for native bees. Gauging her confused look I continued: "The native bees are excellent pollinators of a wide variety of plants, and if I provide nesting spots for them then they will hang around to pollinate our trees, shrubs and flowers. That act of pollination is so important for increased production of seeds and fruits."

These bees do not colonize

What I did not explain was these bees are called solitary because they do not nest in a colony like European honey bees. Instead they find cavities about 5/16 of an inch wide and about 6 to 10 inches deep. In nature, these bees rely on beetles to make their holes in wood. Unable to construct holes for themselves, solitary bees will increase if the number of small holes increases.

A female bee will crawl inside to lay an egg and plug the hole with bee mud. You may notice pollen accumulating around the holes. Pollen will get knocked off as the bee climbs in, and it is a tell tale sign bees are using the holes.

A year later freshly hatched bees will fly around looking for blooms on which to dine.

Some bee species are so specific about what they pollinate that they only feed on one plant species. When that plant quits blooming the bees become dormant. Others are more generic so a wide variety of plants will be pollinated. My motivation for drilling holes was threefold, and I did want my wife to know this.

"First," I explained, "I think the native bees are valuable just because they exist. A diversity of animal life is a sign of a healthy ecosystem. I want more bees around, and besides I have plenty of plants to feed them. Second, I want high seed production. I have planted native plants all around our house and in some native grass fields. Increased pollination means increased seed production which allows those plants to spread easily from seed. Ultimately the bees will help beautify our property.

Third, I know that every seed does not end up as a new plant. Countless birds, insects and small mammals eat plant seeds. If I have more seeds then the critters around my place will have more food. Critters, like the small covey of quail I have on my property, will be my barometer for how well this idea is working. Right now my quail have reasonable access to cover and water but food choices are limited. If the bees are doing their job then my quail population should continue to fare well rather than decline like they are in the rest of the state.

If the quail are doing well, chances are the animals I do not notice as often are doing well too.

After explaining the benefits of native bees I looked to my wife's eyes to read her reception. I could tell I had convinced her why this made sense, but I had forgotten one tiny thing -- these things sting. Her words were simple, "So you want stinging bugs around the house so the kids and I can be stung?"

Now when you put it like that it does sound rather crazy to drill holes in wood just to attract bees. Fortunately, I had an ace up my sleeve.

Non-stinging bees

The bees are nicknamed "non-stinging" bees. This has to do with their mild manner and habit of peaceful coexistence with people. So I was able to tell my wife she should have NO trouble from these little woodland visitors. Even though they are equipped to sting they are not the aggressive type, and even if they feel threatened they are more likely to bite than sting. Leaving them alone is best policy and is rewarded with peace and pollination.

Here are a few notes I was not able to share with my wife, but they may benefit you:

These bee holes can be drilled into almost any dead wood as long as it is not treated or painted.

Gluing pine boards together makes great stock for bee holes.

You can actually make a bee house by drilling holes into a large chunk of wood and placing it near a garden or flower bed.

If you change drill bit sizes you can attract aphid eating wasps (1/8 wide, 4-plus inches deep) to keep your plants aphid free.

You can purchase pre-made solitary bee houses from garden shops or on the Internet. Keywords like orchard bees and bee houses will pick up good Web sites.

After a few minutes discussing the bee concept it was apparent my wife was not going to veto this activity. I had succeeded in my efforts for bee, plant and animal conservation and my wife was on board.

Unfortunately, my wife still thinks I am crazy. She just has reasons other than my attempts to purposely attract bees.

A.J. Hendershott is an outreach and education regional supervisor with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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