Updated: Apr 20, 2020
Everyone knows the woes of honeybees these days, but do you know about our native bees? In North America, we are home to over 4000 species of bees; worldwide, there are estimated to be 20,000 species of indigenous bees. Out of all these bees, the number of honeybee species is … 7. That’s right, there are just seven species of honeybees! However, their economic importance to agriculture – via plant pollination – is priceless.
HONEYBEES ARE SOCIAL INSECTS that live in large colonies, often in man-made boxes that allow for easy care and maintenance. Without the boxes, they would likely live inside the cavity of the dead tree, or perhaps the wall of a building, where they build large wax combs, store honey, and raise young honeybees. In contrast, NATIVE BEES ARE USUALLY SOLITARY CREATURES (or semi-communal, but still living in individual homes). Their nests are found underground, in cavities or under the bark of old trees. Some of our native bees in Ohio include bumblebees, carpenter, mason, orchard, sweat, squash, and cuckoo bees. There is a wide range of sizes and many are specialists: the squash bee focuses on the blossoms of the cucurbit family (zucchini, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, and so on) and are far more effective than honeybees for this task.
Honeybees are thought to have originated eons ago in Southeast Asia. Our familiar commercial honeybee came to Northern Europe by way of Africa, but did not arrive in the Americas until they were brought here by European settlers.
BEES DESCENDED FROM WASPS, which explains the similarities in appearance. Bees have hairy bodies and may have “pollen baskets” on their hind legs, the better to collect protein-rich pollen from flowering plants. Most bees are vegans. Wasps and hornets are mostly hairless and do little pollination because they are carnivorous hunters! They kill soft-bodied insects like caterpillars and feed them to their young. Like honeybees, wasps are social insects living in large colonies. Social insects (like honeybees, wasps, and ants) are more defensive of their hives because they are protecting a large cache of communal resources in one location. Wasps and hornets are more defensive than bees because, well, they can be NASTY JERKS. All stinging insects deserve our respect. Keep a safe distance from bees and wasps, and move slowly if they come around. They are hard workers focused on the task of collecting calories, not on annoying you. Except for yellow-jackets. Yellow-jackets hate everybody.
Making nests for native bees is easy! You can find directions for nesting blocks and stem bundles at www.xerces.org, but here are the essential dimensions: nesting tubules should be 5-6 inches deep, created with a 1/4 inch drill-bit (or using bamboo or reeds). Only one end should be open to the outside. Place them where the holes will stay dry – under an eave, on a fence or in a tree or shrub. Orient the opening to face the morning sun (east or southeast). Even though they’ll be used by solitary native bees, these nests can be susceptible to the same viruses and mites that large honeybee hives face over time. Good sanitation is paramount! Expect to use the nesting blocks or stem bundles no more than a year or two before discarding them. Research which bees are native to your location and customize your bee home to suit them.
3 EASY STEPS TO HELP BEES
Plant large patches of flowers that are a good source of pollen and nectar for bees. Bees are efficient gatherers and will revisit an easy supply of food. Native plants for native bees include coreopsis, coneflower, penstemon, milkweed, and bee balm. Always add a few asters and goldenrod for end-of-season foraging.
Eliminate pesticides. When you spray a plant and pesticide gets onto the pollen or nectar, the bee will consume it. If you must use a bee-friendly pesticide, wait until dusk to spray, after bees have returned to their hive.
Leave your landscape a little messy, especially in fall and early spring. Don’t be in a hurry to cut down old perennials or to mow-n-blow everything into pristine condition! Native bees find homes in those left-alone places at the base of plants, inside old flower stems, or under the bark of a rotting branch. Give them time and space to make your home their home, too!
ADDITIONAL LINKS for BUILDING BEE HOUSES
Tall Clover Farm. Beautifully easy and simple – a project done in an hour! Has a link to a little video for mason bee ID.
The Pollinator Garden. Excellent site from the UK – great general info across many issues.
OSU Bee Identification Guide. Lots of bee photos!
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