It used to be that I hated all insects. And, I confess, I dislike the majority of them even today. I usually wear gloves when I garden so that I don’t have to accidentally touch a worm, slug, or bug. But over the past few years I have come under the spell of bees, especially bumblebees and carpenter bees. I didn’t know much about them, nor was I particularly compelled to learn more. If I kept my distance, both I and the bees could maintain a manageable level of comfortableness.
I knew about bumblebees and carpenter bees. I got stung by a wasp once. And, I remember my mother telling me that “sweat bees” were harmless. And, I knew that moths and butterflies also pollinated flowers, but that was the extent of my knowledge. It was during the Garden Bloggers’ Fling in Toronto in June that I learned more about native pollinators. When I found out that a “Buzztini” was on our Fling agenda and that there would be a short presentation, sponsored by Burt’s Bees and the Fairmont Hotel, I was prepared to ask why we were spending so much effort saving honey bees when they are not indigenous to North America. But, I didn’t have to ask that question. The short presentation respected the role that honey bees play, but it also focused on mason bees and other native bees and how wonderfully efficient they are at pollinating. In fact, they are often more efficient than honey bees. And, at a number of the gardens we visited during the Fling, I spotted native bee “hotels.” You can learn more about the Fairmont’s worldwide efforts to support native and honey bees here.
When I first heard Flingers talk about mason bees, I thought they were using another name for carpenter bees. Silly me. Mason bees are a different species and are solitary, meaning they do not nest in hives, but, instead, in single little tubular compartments in trees and buildings. One of the first things I did when I got home from Toronto was order a solitary bee abode.
It arrived within a few days and when I was hanging it in the cherry tree, I looked for other places in the tree that might house mason bees and other wild native bees. Sure enough, I saw one going into a round hole in a scar where a large limb had fallen the summer before. Cherry trees limbs sometimes snap under the weight of fruit. No one has set up housekeeping in my solitary bee house, but it went in late, probably after prime egg-laying season. My hope is that next year a few females will find it attractive enough to lay eggs. I have noticed some sweat bees flitting in and out, but I think that is more about curiosity than house hunting.
There are 130 different varieties of mason bees in North America!
Female mason bees find holes created by other insects, including carpenter bees, or in cavaties hollowed out by woodpeckers. They also use hollow reeds. Once a bee has found a suitable nesting place, she gathers pollen and nectar that form a pillow from which a solitary larvae feeds as it grows. The mother bee partitions that chamber with a plug made of plant material (hence the name “mason” bee). The plug becomes that back wall for another nest. Bees destined to be female are in the back chambers. Those destined to be males are in the chambers closer to the outdoors.
Mason bees and carpenter bees are usually better pollinators than honey bees.
Honey bees were introduced in North America by colonists in the 17th century. In fact, English colonists took bees to New Zealand, Tasmania, and Australia, making the honey bee a world-wide species.
But, honey bees are not always the most efficient pollinators. They don’t forage during cool, wet, or windy conditions. Native bees, however, do not seem to mind that kind of weather. Though honey bees can transfer pollen via the hairs on their bodies, because they wet pollen and and store it in “bags” on their legs, less pollen falls off of them when they are moving from flower to flower. Large commercial bee companies transport hives from one growing region to another, which puts stress on those honey bees and further impedes their abilities to pollinate. Solitary bees cannot be transported, which makes them unattractive to commercial bee outfits.
Honey bees get a lot of glory, but native bees should not be ignored. Their presence means less stress for over-taxed honeybees. And, mason bees are far better orchard pollinators, for example, because they emerge from their nests in early spring, just in time to pollinate fruit tree blossoms. They also flat out do a better job. In fact, one mason bee can pollinate as much as 70 honey bees. Blue orchard mason bees look a bit like a fly with their iridescent blue/green bodies , but they are bees. For more images of mason bees, click here.
Leaf cutter bees are darker than honey bees and have off white stripes on their abdomen.
They get their name because they chew off sections of leaves and use them to partition off spaces, much like mason bees do with the mud they create. They, too, carry dry pollen on the hairs of their bellies. Pollination occurs when the pollen from one flower is dropped on another. They are also not aggressive.
Carpenter bees look very similar to bumblebees, but are generally larger and do not have much hair on the top of their abdomen. They also do not collect pollen on their legs, but carry it on the hairs underneath their bodies.
Paul Zammit, the Nancy Eaton Director of Horticulture at the Toronto Botanical Gardens, talked to Flingers briefly about the importance of native and honey bees. He asked us what color bees are drawn to the most. I thought it would be red. Others thought it might be yellow. It turns out bees are drawn first to white flowers. I should have known. When I want to try and photography bees in my garden, I go first to the Tardiva hydrangea. Because it blooms later (hence the name Tradiva), it provides pollen and nectar to all sorts of pollinators including wasps and butterflies.
Below are pictures of other pollinators that visit my gardens.