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February 12, 2013

Buzz On!! Tips for Making Bees Feel Welcome

Bee-autify your backyard

All Animals magazine, March/April 2013

  • Native bees are typically hairier than honeybees, making them better at capturing and distributing pollen. Medford Taylor/National Geographic Stock

by Ruthanne Johnson

Set the world abloom Bees depend on pollen and nectar for food, so it’s essential to have flowers blooming successively in spring, summer, and—for late-season species such  as bumblebees—even fall. When architectural designer Denise Shreeve decided to help native pollinators on her McLean, Va., property, the first thing she did was plant native vegetation that would attract them and wouldn’t need chemicals to thrive. For early-season pollinators such as the orchard mason bee, Shreeve has willows, dogwoods, and eastern redbuds. She also resists the urge to pull dandelions: “Even though they aren’t native, they are an early source of pollen,” she says.

Variety is bee-autiful To keep your bees flying straight, plant a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, shrubs, trees, and wildflowers like wild mint, sunflower, and thistle (check xerces.org or contact your local university extension service for help identifying native types). “They all provide different mixes of nutrients, minerals, fats, and proteins in their pollen,” says Vaughan. Another reason for variety: All bees have different size tongues, says Shreeve, and they need different size flowers to access the nectar and pollen.

Some other known bee magnets include monarda, milkweed, wild indigo, goldenrod, linden tree, penstemon, hyssop, scorpion weed, and lupine. “The diversity of bees that visit those plants is simply astounding,” says Vaughan. Since specialist bees—ones that rely on a single plant family or genus for pollen or egg-laying sites—are especially vulnerable to population declines, you should also incorporate their favorite flora into your landscape.

  • Sweat bee is a common term for hundreds of Halictidae species. Most are ground nesters. Jan Marsman

Create a cluster Native bees come in different sizes—from more than an inch long to smaller than 1/8 inch—and their flight ranges vary. Bumblebees can travel up to a mile from their nest, while tiny ground-nesting bees can only fly a few hundred feet. Because females may visit hundreds of individual flowers on a single foray, clustering nectar and pollen producers saves them time and energy. At his Portland, Ore., home, Vaughan planted wide patches of wildflowers. “Imagine you are a bee flying across a landscape,” he says. “ ... If there is a splash of color in bloom all at once, you are more likely to investigate.” Once there, foraging becomes more efficient. “[Bees] can move from flower to flower, get what they need, and get back to the nest.”

The good earth To roll out the welcome mat for bees, housing is as important as food. About 70 percent of native bees nest in the ground, using partially bare slopes, creek banks, berms, dunes, roadside ditches, and even soil-filled flowerpots. Bumblebees often nest in unmowed areas with tussocks of native grasses and in abandoned mouse burrows. Squash bees like to live close to their favorite food source: “If you grow anything from pumpkins to zucchini, watermelon, or winter squash, the squash bee will nest in the ground at the base of the plants,” Vaughan says.

Mining, alkali, and polyester bees prefer partially bare patches of untilled ground with full exposure to morning sun. Vaughan remembers weeding his garden one Saturday and by late Sunday afternoon dozens of sweat bees were digging in the soil. “They use their mandibles, these big hard jaws, to cut through the dirt and their legs to push it out,” he says. “ ... It’s pretty hilarious. Their little butt comes out of the hole and a spray of dirt flies out and then they go rushing back inside to dig some more.”

  • Bees feed their larvae nectar and pollen from flowering plants. Greg Harris

Wooden boxes About 30 percent of native bees nest in wood—holing up in reeds, under bark, in pre-existing tunnels in fallen logs and trees, and even in manmade bee blocks or bamboo bundles. After Shreeve hung bee blocks, she soon had mason and leafcutter bees nesting in the openings, which she lined with removable parchment paper to prevent disease. “When spring arrives, you can hear [the leafcutters’ larvae] crunching and chewing out of the cocoons,” Shreeve says. “It sounds like Rice Krispies cereal ... and it’s so much fun to watch them emerge.”

On the iPad: Get close up with some native bee species.

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