Garden Like a Boss

Beyond honey bees

By James Loomis

A look at some of Utah’s native bees

Bees are crucial to almost every meal you eat, and are hands down the most important pollinators in our ecosystem. But the rampant introduction of honey bee hives over the last decade to “save the bees” is the equivalent of introducing massive herds of cattle into Yellowstone park to “save the bison.”

Now sure, honey bees are super cute and I must admit I do love honey. Enjoying local seasonal honey has kept me allergy-free my entire adult life, and my skill at fermenting this nectar into mead has earned me some particularly boisterous accolades. However, when it comes to the garden, it is worth noting that honey bees are livestock, and introducing livestock into any ecosystem must be a carefully planned and managed decision. With the explosion of backyard beekeeping over the last decade, we are running the risk of having a seriously negative impact on our native bee population.

An abundance of natives

Utah has one of the most diverse native bee populations in the United States, with well over 900 species. Our wide range of microclimates and unique ecosystem has evolved a vast array of pollinating compadres whose skill and specialization are unparalleled. From massive bumble bees to the almost invisible fairy bees, we are spoiled for diversity. How is it that honey bees have managed to have captured the sole spotlight of bee awareness? How have four species of imported European honey bees been deemed so important? I’m no historian, but I’m willing to wager America’s sugar addiction coupled with agribusiness’ corporate greed has something to do with it. Perhaps most people adore the honey bee for the same reason preteens adore pop music—it’s pretty much all they know. Well, my fellow Boss Gardeners, let me introduce you to some of my Bee FF’s.

Once you get to know our badass native bee buddies, your bee watching will get to the next level. Our native bees do a far better job of pollinating fruits and vegetables than honey bees do. In a four-year USDA-funded study, Mia Park and Eleanor Blitzer of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst found that native bees are at least “two to three times better” at pollination than honey bees. “An individual visit by a native bee is actually worth far more than an individual visit by a honey bee,” says Danforth. Often this is due to the fact that honey bees are ruthlessly efficient with pollen collection, wetting it and packing it for transport. Native bees are often “sloppy” by comparison, dropping, drifting and spreading pollen around; which of course, is a bonus for the flowers in this equation. In addition, familiar garden vegetables such as squash, tomatoes and peppers simply cannot be effectively pollinated by honey bees.

I spend a great deal of time in my garden quietly observing the insects who frequent my flowers. It brings me great joy to see a wide diversity of bees and other pollinators dropping by for a visit. As I monitor these tiny insect guests, I judge the health of my pollinator ecosystem by whether I’m seeing more native bees or honey bees visiting my flowers. If I see more natives than honey bees, I know my area’s ecosystem is diverse and healthy. If I see equal amounts, well, that’s ok too, but I’m going to focus on providing more habitat for native bees. If I’m seeing mostly honey bees, then my system is out of balance and major support of native bee habitat is in order. (It is worth noting that to do a meaningful census of bee populations, one must have a diverse array of flowers in a planting, as different species of bees will favor different blossoms).

Apidae Bombus: crop connoisseurs

Hands down, my favorite bees to watch are the bumble bees. Their style of flight is elegantly reckless and endlessly amusing. Of the genus Bombus in the family Apidae, this type of bee is among the most easily recognizable and identified. At an average size of almost an inch long and fuzzily covered with a mass of fine hairs, these bee-hemoths are almost impossible to miss with their distinctive roaring buzz during flight.

The signature buzz of the bumble bee is caused by the massive body size in relation to the size of its wings. This allows the bumble bee to do a unique style of pollinating: buzz pollination. While on a flower, the bee intensely vibrates its body, resulting in a literal explosion of pollen. I often ponder whether these furry friends make use of this technique as they cultivate their own next generation. When it comes it solanaceous crops (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, etc.), no bee pollinates more effectively than the bumbles.

Unlike most native bees, which are solitary, our pals the bumbles live in colonies of dozens of individuals. Bumble bees nest in holes in the ground, often seeking out abandoned rodent dens or other hollow cavities. Each spring, a lone queen emerges after overwintering in her den. Among the first bees to get to work each spring, she gathers pollen before returning to the den to lay her eggs to rebirth the colony, then stays with her eggs to incubate them.  Once hatched, this colony will live a single year, producing another queen who will overwinter and repeat the cycle.

To encourage a healthy bumble bee population, minimize soil disturbances in late fall through early spring, as tillage and other disturbances could prove fatal to the lone queen responsible for carrying on the legacy of the colony. Bare patches of soil on east-facing slopes provide ideal habitat for bumble bees, and I often engineer lots of cavities with wood and rock in this slope to provide additional habitat opportunities.

Apidae Peponapsis: squash superstars

My second favorite bee to spot around the garden is the squash bee. Of the genus Peponapsis in the family Apidae, this bee is easy to spot in and around the flowers of its namesake, squash. As squash are native to North America, this bee has evolved the perfect symbiotic companionship with them. Feeding exclusively on the pollen of cucurbits, the squash bee is far and away the most effective pollinator of squash.  Sorry, honey bees—you have no game in this arena.

Similar in size to the honey bee, they are distinguished by distinct light-colored stripes on their abdomen. If you look closely, you’ll also notice they carry their pollen in “combs” on their back legs rather than “baskets” as honey bees do. The best way to learn to identify them is to regularly check squash flowers, as this is the key place to find them frolicking and getting crunk on squash pollen.

This leads me to one of my favorite facts about squash bees. Like most species of native bee, the squash bee is a solitary insect. The females live in burrows in the soil, often just below the surface near patches of squash. The males, well, they never really take up a residence. What they have learned, however, is that if you spend the night in a squash flower, guess who shows up first thing in the morning? That’s right, the ladies.  Hey there, goooooood morning……

Like bumble bees, since squash bees also nest in the ground it is important to minimize soil disturbance to encourage healthy populations of this native. Tilling your soil is absolutely off the table when it comes to promoting healthy native bee habitat.

Osmia Bombus: orchard oracles

Another easy bee to identify are the mason bees, who are so phenomenally effective at pollinating fruit and nut trees they are also referred to as orchard bees or orchard mason bees. Of the genus Bombus in the family Osmia, these distinctive metallic blue/green bees make are easy to spot. They are roughly the same size as honey bees, and another distinctive trait is that they carry their pollen in balls on their belly rather than in sacs on their hind legs.  While they are one of the hardest-working bees and classed as super pollinators, most are only active in the spring when fruit and nut trees are in bloom.

Mason bees nest in holes bored into wood by other insects, and their nests are easy to spot as they plug the ends of their burrows to protect their brood with mud, hence the name “mason” bees.  Prowl any wood piles or wood fence posts in your garden for holes, and should you find one capped off with mud, hooray— you’ve found mason bee habitat!  Mason bees are one of the few native bees that are easily cultivated and cared for as it is easy to replicate the habitat they seek.

There are many commercially made habitats available to support mason bees, or it is also simple to make your own. Come to CATALYST’s 9th Annual Bee Fest: A Celebration of Pollination at Wasatch Community Gardens’ Green Team Farm (622 W. 100 S.), on Saturday, June 15, 9am-2pm (see back cover for more details) and learn how to make your own mason bee habitat!

James Loomis is a full-time urban farmer, educator and permaculture hooligan.

This article was originally published on May 31, 2019.