In my last blog post (Super-pollinators Part 1), I wrote about the diversity of wild, native bees that have co-evolved with our plant communities for millennia. If you read Part 1, you know why it's so important to conserve this highly diverse group of super-pollinators. This follow-up post is intended to provide you with a few concrete actions you can take to provide these beneficial insects with safe places to nest and reproduce.
It's the ideal time to make a conservation commitment to the bees in your backyard as we wrap up National Pollinator Week this Sunday, June 24th!
While the focus of pollinator conservation is often centered around planting flowers, providing nesting habitat is a critically important, but often overlooked step.
If you keep reading, I can almost guarantee you'll be charmed and surprised by the details of native bee nesting ecology, and want to know more about how you can help provide mother bees with a warm welcome in your own backyard, and beyond.
What is "Bee Bread" or a "Pollen Loaf"?
Imagine you are a small, native bee. Perhaps you are one of those gorgeous metallic green sweat bees. Your energy is precious, your life is short, and you need to find a nest site that is safe, dry, and sheltered. Luckily, you find a bare patch of soil that is well-drained and sunny. You burrow a small tunnel into the ground, and begin laying a series of eggs. You lay one egg at a time, at the end of individual side tunnels that branch off of the main stem. With each solitary egg you leave a sweet little package of food behind for the offspring you'll never live to see. To make this package, you have mixed high-protein pollen with nectar from your nectar stomach to form a "pollen loaf", also known as "bee bread". When each egg hatches, the larva will have the nourishment needed to spin a cocoon, become a pupa, and then, ultimately an adult.
When I describe this process in my pollinator talks (with plenty of visual aids), I can literally feel people leaning in to learn more - and this is only the tip of the iceberg. There's so much more to know about these complex and highly evolved creatures.
If You Build It...
Many of our native bee species nest in tunnels. These include underground tunnels (described above), abandoned beetle tunnels in old stumps or standing dead trees ("snags"), and the pithy or hollow stems/twigs of woody plants like elderberry, raspberry, blackberry, and sumac.
Ideally, you want to provide this nesting habitat in its natural form, but where habitat is lacking you can build or purchase a "bee hotel"! This is usually a structure that provides a variety of nesting sites and materials to support a diversity of native bees and other beneficial insects. Your garden or backyard can serve as a sanctuary for native bees - if you build it, they will come.
A note of caution: some companies that sell hotels and houses, also sell native bees. I do not recommend buying any native bees such as so-called "summer" and/or "spring" bees. The former is not native to North America, and does not survive Maine winters. The spring bees are uncommon here, and are not our local genotype, anyway. Any bees brought in from elsewhere could introduce pathogens as well. Overall, it's best to enhance habitat to boost populations of the native bee communities we already have.
Three Ways to Be(e) a Habitat Hero
Flowers that provide nectar and pollen are essential to native bees, but a lack of suitable nesting sites is probably a more critical need, and a greater overall threat. Modern land management and landscaping practices often strive for an unnaturally ‘tidy’ and more aesthetically-appealing landscape. Over the long term these practices have resulted in a lack of nesting sites for bees. Bees need bare or semi-bare ground, dead trees, clumps of bramble canes, brush piles, and other ‘untidy’ or ‘cluttered’ areas. Providing nesting cavities and nesting sites for bees is a meaningful and simple way to provide essential habitat for native bees in our gardens, fields, yards, managed natural areas, and woodland edges. Here are some general recommendations for how to do just that.
1) Create, or maintain areas of bare ground in sunny sites with well-drained soil for ground-nesting and mining bees. In our increasingly paved-over and manicured world, these areas are harder and harder to come by. Those bare patches on the lawn you continually fuss over? Let them be(e)! Keep an eye on these sites. You might find a mining bee nest entrance, and then you can sit back and feel good knowing that there is another generation of super-pollinators undergoing metamorphosis beneath your feet.
2) Promote dead and dying trees, rotting logs/stumps, and coarse woody debris. Allow the natural decay process of trees and coarse woody debris to run its course. You can read much more about that here.
3) Provide artificial nesting structures to enhance nesting habitat for cavity-nesting bees. The highest priority should be to maximize the availability of natural nesting sites, but if you want to put up a bee box or hotel, just make sure to do your homework. Some of the commercially available bee blocks do not meet the specified needs of our native bees. Artificial structures can also spread disease and parasites due to overcrowding, and should be properly cleaned and stored in the off-season. Woodpeckers can also be a problem. Work with Me for more information.
There are many details I could not include here today, so please reach out if you would like an in-person or virtual consultation to learn more about how to boost bee nesting habitat for your pollinator paradise.
Of course, there is so much more you can to help our native bees. If you want to go the extra mile, I'm at your service. When you work with me on a habitat design I help you build a customized, site-specific native plant community that will provide flower-rich habitat for our super-pollinators.
Did you know? Bumble bees often build their nests in old rodent burrows. You can provide these areas by planting native bunch grasses and allowing them to grow tall along wooded edges.
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