The conservation effort for pollinators has been in the spotlight or some time now. They are a critical, keystone species for the natural habitats that support the food chain. Native bees have co-evolved with native plants in an intricate exchange of food for pollination services. Plants have showy flowers to attract insects, birds and bats for seed production. Pollinators are extremely important for the food we eat and agriculture crops. Wind pollinated plants like grass and evergreen trees can accomplish seed production without bees.
The workhorse of the pollinator world for agriculture is the well-known honeybee. Honeybees, imported during European settlement, are naturalized which means they live in hollow trees as well as managed hives. Their honey is harvested for us to enjoy! They are responsible for the pollination of most agricultural food crops. They are the bees we notice in our backyards.
We may also notice bumblebees. Those large, hairy, slow and low-flying bees of flower beds and the “weeds” of our lawn. Unlike honeybees, bumblebees are native. Like honeybees, bumblebees live a social life. The queen begins a colony each spring by making a pollen ball and honeypot. She lays an egg on the pollen ball and, since it is March and still cold, she sits on the egg and vibrates her body in order to generate heat for the egg. She drinks from the honeypot for energy. The new bumblebees are now the ones who build the nest, gather pollen for eggs while the queen stays in the hive. Bumblebee hives are smaller than honeybee hives. Bumblebees are not aggressive; they sting
only when stepped on or if the hive is disturbed.
Now if you have encountered an “aggressive” bumblebee, one that flies in your face or buzzes towards you, what you are seeing is likely the similar-looking carpenter bee. Large carpenter bees are big, but their abdomen (the section on the other end of the head), is not hairy like a Bumblebees. The ones that buzz you are the males. They cannot sting, but they are doing their best to defend territory. The females lay eggs in wood tunnels so males defend territory around wood that is not painted. I provide natural wood fencing and standing dead tree snags for their habitat.
Less noticed are the many different varieties of small native bees, all with interesting and remarkable life histories. The Small Carpenter Bee is about the size of an ant and slightly metallic. Females lay their eggs inside hollow, dead plant stems and are some of the early pollinators of our native plants. Mining bees lay their eggs in soil and line each cell with a waterproof substance. Allow standing dead stems in the early spring and plant bunch grasses for ground nesting bees to help bees complete their life cycle and important work.
The importance of pollinators is matched only in the incredible variety of ways they survive, reproduce and gather pollen. You can help increase pollinator populations in your landscape. Here’s how:
• Provide flowering plants that provide nectar from spring to fall.
• Allow clover to grow in your lawn and mow at 2-3 inches.
• Place dead plant stems in the compost pile, don’t burn them in the spring.
• Provide shallow water dishes with sloping sides especially during dry weather.
• Learn more about the amazing life cycles of bees or identify the ones visiting your flowers.
• Tell a friend how important bees are and spread the word for pollinator conservation!