An Introduction to Native Bees

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Bees belong to a group of insects that belong to the Hymenoptera order, ideally referring to insects with membrane wings. Within this order are a total of 100,000 species of insects. In total there are 25 thousand different kinds of bees in existence. Most people are more familiar with the honey bee, primarily because they are largely domesticated and they produce a food consumed by humans. There are however, many other bees that live a solitary lifestyle. This kind survives and thrives inside small tunnels.

Bees are social insects and even in cases of solitary species, you might find a number of females sharing a tunnel. Some other bee species exhibit a semi or social organization with a hierarchical arrangement for the female bees. Bumblebees, tropical stingless bees and honey bees belong to the same family. The social organization of this group is similar across the board, with one fertile female queen vested with the responsibility of laying eggs for the colony. The other colony members will devote their lifetime to serving the queen and handling any other important tasks within the colony. These include cleaning, defense, feeding brood, feeding the queen, removal of dirt or dead bees, foraging, and many others.

Mason Bees

Native Bees - Mason Bee

Mason bees are fascinating insects. They are excellent pollinators and come second to none in that respect. They have two seasons in their life cycle: active season and inactive season. Each of these seasons has its special demands and the keeper should be familiar with both. These heavy foragers require a reliable source of nectar during the active season. They mainly rely on fruit trees and wildflowers for pollen and nectar and this is primarily their diet. It goes without saying also that mud and a comfortable shelter should be provided for mason bees to survive.

Mason bees, unlike honeybees, will never build honeycombs but rather raise their young inside tube-shaped holes. They tend to prefer approximately 8mm wide or pencil sized holes where they demarcate sections within the tube, creating independent sections with an egg inside. Pollen is usually collected and deposited inside the sections prior to laying an egg on it. This will sustain the developing larva throughout its developmental stages.

Mason bees derive their name from masons given how they build and nurture their young. They will first identify an excellent tube-shaped hole, collect pollen and deposit inside the tube, then lay its egg and seal off the section. The process is repeated for the next section until the tube is filled to the brim. Mason bees prefer elevated grounds, with the recommended off-ground feet for domesticated mason bees being between 6 to 7 feet. The area should also be well sheltered from direct sunlight and rain. They are like honeybees in the sense that elements can completely wipe out their colony. They however need some exposure to early sun since this encourages the mason bees to begin foraging early enough and conserve their energy.

There are so many options to choose from when it comes to selecting an ideal house for your mason bees. These vary from the use of wooden blocks with drilled holes for nesting to the use of bamboo tubes. Irrespective of the kind of housing you choose for your mason bees, caution should be exercised. The best nesting area should be a nesting tube or solid blocks that can easily be opened when there is need to harvest, clean or store cocoons. Some popular tubes include bamboo, natural reeds, cardboard tubes, and rolled and taped printer paper.

Mason bees utilize mud as nesting material. This is usually used for sealing the chamber once it has been filled with pollen and an egg laid. They require moisturized mud with a heavy clay texture. This is collected within the locality and if not available within your region then you can purchase some and water it frequently to lure the mason bees. Since mason bees are generalist foragers, they will collect pollen and nectar from a wide variety of flowers. Therefore, the keeper should plant as many flowering trees as possible, with staggered blooming stages to avail the required pollen and nectar throughout the year.

Mason bees are early spring pollinators that indiscriminately pollinate crops and trees (fruit trees, flowers, and vegetables). They are not only domesticated for their pollination work but also for aesthetic values. Mason bees or blue orchard bees, as they are also referred to, make an excellent addition to any garden and are human friendly. Their general appearance is usually dark blue and almost looks black. Additionally, protruding hairs that are stiff can be seen on their bodies.  To distinguish a male from a female, you find males have white hairs under the body and on the face. Contrastingly, females tend to be bigger in size and have short and thick antennae.

One of the things that make mason bees popular is their friendliness. These insects never sting and that means you do not require expensive protective gear when handling them. This however does not mean they do not have stingers. The female mason is endowed with a stinger that will only come in handy during a life and death situation. Their stingers are not painful as that of the honeybee; you will feel what you normally feel when stung by a fly or a mosquito. All the female mason bees are fertile, and they do not have a queen.

Mason bees require protection just like their cousins the honey bee. It is the duty of the keeper to keep them well-sheltered from the elements and protect them from predators. One of the ways of protecting the mason bees from predators is the use of a protective cover on the open end of their nest. The mason bee is targeted by wasps, squirrels, and birds. This cover will create an impediment to the predators.

Mason bees exude excellent pollination capability, with their pollination success rated at 95% in comparison to honey bees. In terms of maintenance, mason bees are less demanding with the major task of the keeper being hygiene year in and year out. The preferred flowering plants for these bees include: peach, plum, apple, pear, and cherry. They love yellow, purple and blue blossoms.

In addition to a good source of nectar and pollen, mason bees should be provided with a moist clay soil. The main purpose of this is for building the walls inside their nesting chamber. Clay is preferable since it is sticky and does not crumble. If in areas where clay soil is not available, then you should consider purchasing some and placing it in a container near the mason bees’ nesting area.

Pollination Benefits of the Mason Bees

Mason bees come on top of the chain in terms of success rate in pollination. They are rated at 95% pollination rate, almost ten times that of honey bees that comes at 5% pollination rate. Mason bee success in pollination is attributable to their pollination behavior. For honey bees, all pollen is collected on their body, mixed with saliva to create a paste, and then pushed into a pollen basket on their legs. For mason bees, the entire body of the bee acts as a magnet that collects pollen and spreads it on every part of the flower as it moves around. What that means is that pollen is easily distributed to any flower that is in need of fertilization.

To back up this analogy, it has been established that orchards require a lesser number of mason bees than honey bees. It is also important to note that mason bees tend to establish their nests within a close proximity to the flowers they forage. This grants them a higher success rate in pollination unlike honey bees that will cover miles for the same task.

Leafcutter Bees

Native Bees - Leafcutter Bee

Second on the list of the most useful pollinators to the gardener, is the leafcutter bee that is part of the Megachile family. They derive their name from their behavior, being known for clipping off some segments of shrubs, roses, or lilacs. It is certainly a sure sign that leafcutter bees are within the area when you find circular or crescent shaped holes in leaves within your garden. These cuts are never harmful to your plants, given that plants can withstand far more harm than these. All affected areas are replenished within no time.

In some instance, the tiny cuts made by leafcutter bees may be mistaken for a harmful pest. This is never the case and you should never consider introducing some pesticides into your crops or garden. The crescent cuts made by these bees are quite neat and will stick to a circular pattern. If you find any cuts that are jagged or ripped off, these are not made by the leafcutter bee. That might be caused by some common pests that eat foliage, e.g caterpillar, grasshoppers, locusts, and others.

The lifecycle of the leafcutter bee is similar to that of mason bees. Their newly emerged females will begin to build their nests during spring. They will lay one egg on each of the nest and provide pollen that will sustain the larva once it is hatched. The leafcutter larva will transform into pupa and grow within its cell. It will overwinter in the cell and mature then later emerge as an adult leafcutter bee the next spring or earlier parts of summer.

Just like mason bees, the leafcutter tend to prefer already existing crevices or nesting holes. They will also be on the lookout for soft and rotten wood or twigs that can easily be excavated. Upon locating a suitable spot, the leafcutter bee will begin to collect its leaf cuts and begin to build the nest. This is done by building a cylindrical tube shaped nest that looks like a cigar. Pieces of cut leaves are arranged in overlapping segments and artistically aligned leading to the cylindrical shape. The end of each cell is sealed using segments of leaves. These nests are small, usually about 4 to 8 inches in length.

Other leafcutter bee species utilize flower petals when making their nests. Examples of these include the silvery leafcutter bee. All leafcutter bees are solitary insects and not social insects. It therefore follows that a leafcutter female will single-handedly raise its young. They are also quite friendly and will never sting unless provoked. If they sting, the stinger is mild and not comparable to that of a honey bee or wasp. Just like the honey bee, this bee has its share of natural predators and enemies. Parasites in particular devastate the leafcutter bee population leading to declining numbers depending on the season.

Leafcutter bees can be encouraged to nest in your garden by providing the required conditions. You can leave behind a rotting tree stump, or provide a leafcutter bee house. The latter can be constructed from scratch or purchased online. Additionally, keep a keen eye on leafcutter bee predators such as ants, wasps, and beetles that tend to invade the bee nest.

Pollination Benefits of the Leafcutter Bees

The leafcutter bee is quite efficient when it comes to pollinating crops and fruit trees. They are widely recognized for this, with scientists pointing out that a single leafcutter bee can handle the work of 20 honey bees. This is 20 percent more efficiency when it comes to pollinating crops and trees. On similar stats, it is stated that 150 leafcutter bees housed in a greenhouse can do the work of 3,000 honey bees when providing pollination services.

Some might consider leafcutter bee as pests, perhaps due to a lack of knowledge. On the contrary, the small leafcutter bee is a beneficial pollinator. Gardeners are advised not to view leafcutter bees as pests but rather helpful insects that support the natural ecosystem. They already have their share of parasitic enemies, therefore we should not add more trouble to their tough life.

Leafcutter bees are not like other bees that have pollen baskets for transporting pollen and nectar on their rear legs. Instead, they are endowed with hair-like structures on under their abdomen. You will therefore notice some accumulated yellow or golden substance on this area as they head back to their nest. They often frequent ornamental leaves such as bougainvillea, roses, redbud trees, azaleas, or ash trees. You will also find leafcutter bees in wildflowers, summer fruits, and vegetables. These include peas, squash, melons, and others.

Leafcutter bees emerge in spring and mate. A short time later the male leafcutter bee dies, leaving behind the female that will proceed to look for potential nesting area. The solitary bee survives on its own and will take care of its offspring without help. A single leafcutter nest comprises of up to 20 cells that have been packed closely together. The female leafcutter bee will forage for nectar and pollen then mix these with her saliva, thus creating food for the developing larva. Each single cell that has been built is filled with the food that will sustain the larva therein. Once this is done, the cell is sealed off using chewed leaves.

Wild Bees

Native Bees - Wild Bee

There exist more than 4,000 wild bees in the Americas, with 10% of them lacking any known names. These bees are efficient pollinators are yet to receive the praise they deserve when it comes to keeping the natural ecosystem healthy and sustainable. Given the fact that 75% of plant species in North America rely on these pollinators, it is time that wild bees are appreciated and granted the respect they deserve.

Interestingly between 20 to 45% of wild bees are categorized are pollen specialists, meaning they rely on specific plant species. Since the bees and these plants are mutually dependent on each other, the absence of either renders their survival impossible. Removing these plants causes the bees to migrate to other areas and will cause loss of the bees. Conversely, the absence of these bees makes it impossible for the plant species to reproduce and poses the danger of extinction of these plants. Some of common plants that require specialist wild bees include annual sunflower, squashes, gourds, pumpkin, and many others.

Pollination Benefits of Wild Bees

The pollination benefits of wild bees cannot be underestimated. These tiny insects form the cornerstone through which the environment, countryside, and gardens beg its survival. Honey bees tend to be recognized more in terms of their products and pollination services. Their counterpart, wild bees receive the least attention yet they are more efficient pollinators unlike honey bees. Perhaps one of the reasons for this may be due to the fact that they do not make honey and other honey products such as pollen, wax and royal jelly.

Wild bees are more efficient pollinators than honey bees. They are much faster when it comes to visit one flower to the other unlike honey bees. In terms of accessing pollen that tends to be hard to access by honey bees, wild bees have an easier time. Honey bees cannot shake off pollen from certain flowers since they cannot “buzz pollinate”. Only wild bees are able to do it hence they are more effective in terms of pollinating flowers that are challenging to honey bees.

Furthermore, some plants such as Alfalfa have flowers that trigger a tripping effect when visited by a bee. This mechanism has been found to put off honey bees, making it difficult for the pollen to come into contact with the bee, rendering honey bees inefficient pollinators of such flowers. Fortunately, for wild bees the triggering effect of the stamen do not put them off, hence they are more effective pollinators of these types of flowers.

Various researches conducted in the recent past have come up with the conclusion that wild bees are more efficient pollinators than honey bees. In fact, most wild flowers have evolved over time alongside wild bees. That would only mean these flowers never relied on honey bees in the first place. Furthermore, there are literally thousands of wild flowers out there, most of which cover huge geographic areas. How then do all these plants rely on honey bees that in most cases may not be within close proximity? That only means other pollinators are doing this job, and that can only be wild bees.

On a downside, it has been established that honey bees have short tongues when compared to wild bee species. This thus means the honey bee is not capable of pollinating certain flower types that are deep and complicated. This makes wild bees more effective for such flowers and as mentioned earlier, wild bees are able to buzz pollinate, which gives them a greater advantage over honey bees. Wild bees are therefore more efficient pollinators of crops such as tomatoes that require buzz pollinators.

Conclusion

In the USA, efforts to conserve the honey bee have been on the rise given their importance in pollination and honey bee products. Interestingly, demand for pollination services has grown tremendously, and it might surpass the demand for honey bee products sooner than anticipated.

Native bees have dominated the beekeeping space perhaps due to their adaptability to climate changes and other factors within their environment. In the USA there are a total of 4,000 species of native bees and studies have proven these to be more resistant to some of the problems that cripple honey bees. They are less susceptible to diseases that wipe out honey bee colonies. Additionally, they are least exposed to chemicals since they are not commercially raised for pollination services.

Unfortunately, native bees will only assist in pollination and do not produce honey or any other bee products such as wax, pollen, and royal jelly. If well exploited, native bees can help ease the burden humans have placed on honey bees. Understandably, a single worker honey bee will collect nectar and pollen for feeding its 70 thousand nest mates in addition to human consumers who will harvest honey from the same source. Asides, honey bees are ferried across the US for pollination services. All these without a doubt, have a serious impact on honey bees. No wonder honey bee population has dwindled by 50 percent within the last 25 years. The time is ripe to begin focusing on native bees too.

References

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