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The Buzz on Native Bees

These Gentle, Hardworking Bees Will Help Your Garden Grow
Here's How to Help Them Help You.

Honeybees Aren't Our Only Helpers

Domesticated European honeybees are widely recognized visitors to our gardens. Most of us are somewhat familiar with their complex social structure and their amazing ability to communicate with their fellow hive members. We also tend to give them all of the credit for pollinating our garden crops. However, the reality of the situation is that we are not giving credit where it is due: much of the necessary task of pollinating our garden crops is actually completed by the thousands of different species of wild, hard-working bees that are native to our continent.

According to studies done by USDA researchers, native bees are faster and more efficient pollinators than European honeybees. They are also active much earlier in the spring than honeybees are. This is important because apple trees, strawberries and many other crops bloom very early in the spring, while the weather is still cold and most honeybees are still lazing about in their hives. Thus, these solitary native bees are the unsung heroes of farms, gardens and orchards everywhere.

Many Garden Crops Won't Grow Well Without Bees

Strawberries, cucumbers, melons and sunflowers are just a few examples of garden crops that need insect pollination in order to grow. Berry bushes and fruit trees also rely heavily on bees for pollination. Home gardeners and commercial farmers alike depend on bees to get their job done: without the bees, there wouldn't be much of a crop to harvest. Usually, there are enough bees to help the plants produce fruits and vegetables but often, there aren't quite enough bees to get the job done right: misshapen or unhealthy looking fruits and vegetables are often the result of incomplete pollination, not diseased plants.

Bees Need Our Help Too

In recent years, there has been a decline in the domesticated honeybee population because of a nationwide infestation of parasitic mites that prey on and weaken the bees. Populations of wild, native bees such as bumblebees have also declined, primarily due to loss of habitat and the widespread use of insecticides. There are several things that we can do to help native bees maintain their population.

  1. Provide nesting areas for them. Most bees like to live in dry, sunny, brushy areas near the crops or plants that provide their food. Some native bees need a source of mud and water to build their nests, others live in the ground and still others like to live in hollowed out reeds, branches and stems or in bee houses provided for them by their human friends. (It's easy to make a bee house. All you need is a block of untreated wood, a drill and some know-how. For bee house building instructions, see the link at the end of this article).
     
  2. Discontinue the use of insecticides around our homes and in our gardens. Organic gardening is healthier for you and for the bees!
     
  3. Provide food for them. Most crops don't bloom continuously, so in order to attract bees, you'll have to make sure that they have good variety of plants to feed from, so that there is always something in bloom for them. You can grow plants for them in your garden or you can rely on a variety of wild or landscaping plants such as willow, clover and honeysuckle to provide food for them.

Enjoy Their Company

Once you have provided the bees with a good home, they will repay you with well-pollinated garden crops and with the pleasure of their company. Bee watching is every bit as enjoyable and fascinating as bird watching. Since native bees are gentle and hard-working, they are extremely unlikely to sting or bother people, pets or other wildlife, including other insects--it's not in their nature and they're just too busy to waste precious time and energy on activities other than foraging and making homes for themselves and their brood.

Digg! digg it

Tammy Biondi has been growing organic produce for over 10 years. Besides running Blue Horizon Farm, Tammy teaches about sustainable farming at the Central Carolina Community College. She also is a successful freelance writer, focusing on agricultural topics. Contact her at tammy@bluehorizonfarm.com.