Bring the natives home
Raising backyard native bee species is a plus-they sting less and pollinate more
Creating habitat for native bees is one of the most fun and magical things I have done with my kids. These critters can be kept right by your door. Their close proximity makes it easy for kids to keep a curious eye on the bee habitat. And inviting them close to home isn’t a concern like it is with wasps, or even bumblebees and honey bees. Native bees tend to only fly about 300 feet from their nest so they stay mostly in your yard and don’t bother the neighbors. They are also considered “stingless.” The males of many native species are incapable of stinging and the females do so only very rarely.
Native bees do not produce honey but they are master pollinators. Honeybees are not native to North America and it’s okay that they are here – they don’t compete with native bees – but they are not as effective pollinators as our native ones. And because of large declines due to habitat loss and persistent use of chemicals, when we say “Save the bees” it’s really our native bees we should be thinking of.
Two main types of native bees are very easy to have in your backyard that benefit our gardens.
The blue orchard mason bee is a stunning blue-black shiny bee. They are very fuzzy and hairy. They build their homes with mud, using it to make cell divisions in hollow reeds or blocks. In an orchard setting they have a 95% success rate of pollination whereas honey bees have success only 5% of the time. They come out only once a year, when apricot trees start to bloom, and live for six to eight weeks as they pollinate fruit trees and other spring plants.
Giving them a good habitat is easy. They like to nest in reeds or tubes about six inches deep. Houses should be designed so that they can be opened and inspected for parasitic bugs. Parasitic bugs eat and take over the mason bee cocoons as they go into dormancy from about June, through the next spring until they hatch again.
These beautiful bees are very gentle and easily held by a child. The males have a white furry mustache that is sure to elicit giggles. In a happy nest they easily quadruple their numbers every year. They are perfect for a home gardener to help produce more orchard fruit.
The summer leafcutter bee doesn’t emerge until June. They are a much smaller bee and are used to pollinate alfalfa crops. For a home gardener, they help greatly with vegetable and berry yields. They cut small pieces of leaves from your roses, lilacs, peas, beans or other soft-leaved plants to line their cells.
You can buy commercially made habitats and bee hotels for these insects but be sure you are choosing a safe home for your new hive. Many bee houses are not actually the right type of habitat and they may allow parasitic bugs to enter. It takes about 15 minutes of maintenance, once a year in early spring, to inspect and clean your habitat.
Susie Goodspeed (shown here with her pal Mason) is a honey beekeeper and native bee activist. She has a small bee sanctuary and hobby farm in Payson, Utah. She offers bees and supplies on her Etsy page and teaches native bee classes along the Wasatch Front. @SusieBeeGoodHoney