Bollinger County Museum of Natural History

Give Bees A Chance

by Ann O'Donnell

You’ve heard about the plight of honey bees. But did you know there are at least 4,000 species of native bees in North America? Many of them are in danger due to habitat loss and pesticides. While they can’t be exploited for honey, these insects are a vital part of our ecosystem. If the (non-native) honey bees continue to have troubles, we will need our native bees more than ever, to pollinate our crops, gardens, and native plants like blackberries and wild plums.

The vast majority of native bees are solitary rather than social insects. Unlike honey bees and bumble bees, each female has her own nest, so you don’t need to worry about being attacked by the colony. Solitary bees are docile and do not inflict a painful sting like honey bees.

Most native bees are diggers; they nest underground. But about a third of native bees are ‘tube-nesters’. In nature they nest in hollow twigs, but you can provide nesting sites for them, either by drilling holes in blocks of wood, or by hanging tubes out for them, made from bamboo (wild cane) or reeds. Holes and tubes can range in size from 1/8 inch to ½ inch in diameter, and 4 to 6 inches long. The more different sizes you provide, the greater the diversity of species you will welcome.

The most famous tube-nesting bee is the blue orchard bee. They appear when apple trees are in bloom and are accomplished pollinators of apples. You can also find them on dandelions and redbud trees when they’re in bloom. They use mud to separate the cells of their nests.

Other tube-nesting bees include leafcutter bees. They use leaves rather than mud to divide their nests into cells. You may have noticed circular holes in some leaves in springtime. If you provide nesting habitat, you may get to enjoy the sight of a leafcutter bee flying in with a disc of green leaf to build her nest in your tubes! It’s like having tiny pets you don’t need to feed. You’ll notice that both blue orchard bees and leafcutter bees carry pollen on their bellies rather than on their legs.

Among the ground-nesting bees is the squash bee. This is a large, striped bee that nests underground and visits only squash plants. If you grow squash in your garden, check their flowers this summer and see if you find a bee that looks like an overgrown honey bee.

Here are some more tips for welcoming native pollinators to your place:

  • Don’t use insecticides. This is the first, most important step. If you rely on chemicals to control insect pests, you are killing beneficial insects as well, including predators and parasites of the pests you want to get rid of. If you stop spraying (and dusting with Sevin), your garden will eventually become a balanced ecosystem, with many fewer pests.

  • Plant a diverse garden. The greater the variety of plants in your yard or garden, the more species of bees you will attract. Make sure you have variations in height, flowering time, and plant families. As always, diversity is key to having a healthy ecosystem.

  • Grow native plants. Not all plants in your garden need to be natives, but the more native plants you have, the better.

  • Let it be. Leave at least part of your yard unmowed and untilled. (Think perennials and wildflowers.) This will give the digger bees a chance to raise their young undisturbed.

  • Go bugwatching! Once you provide habitat for native pollinators, go out and see who moves in. Get to know your bugs. It’s great entertainment, available in your own back yard.

Bees Bees


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