Your Houston garden needs native bees. Here’s the buzz – Houston Chronicle
I have always loved that path, but I talked with native bee experts that day, and suddenly everything around us appalled me. We were in a green desert that extended blocks and blocks. Manicured neighborhoods do not look nearly as lush to pollinators as they do to humans. They are a stately dead zone for the fur babies of the insect kingdom.
Unlike wasps, whose more elongated bodies are hard and shiny, bees have hairy bodies and legs that act like Velcro for the pollen they eat and spread, increasing blooms and crops in the process. North America is home to more than 3,600 native species that evolved along with native plants and, accordingly, come in an incredible diversity of shapes, sizes, body strengths, tongue lengths and flower preferences. About 800 species occur in Texas.
That said, you don’t have to go far to see why so many pollinators — including other insects, birds and mammals — are dwindling or endangered. In Southampton that evening, I didn’t see a single native blooming plant that might have offered nectar or pollen, much less an area that might qualify as a nesting sanctuary.
“That is a big stretch for a lot of folks,” says Kim Eierman, author of “The Pollinator Victory Garden” ($26.99, Quarry Books, 160 pp.). Just putting out flowers is not enough, she adds. A bigger question might be, “Just how perfect do our lawns need to be?”
Numbers: About 3,600 of the world’s 20,000 known species are from North America. Texas has about 800 species, including 9 types of bumble bees.
No hives: Unlike honey bees, which were imported from Europe in 1622, America’s native bees are mostly solitary. They do not live in hives or produce honey for humans.
Where they live: Most North American native bees are ground dwellers. The rest nest in cavities.
Life cycle: A native bee can live a year but flies and gathers pollen only 3-6 weeks.
Nothing to fear: Native bees are not aggressive and will not sting unless threatened.
Learn more: “The Bees in Your Backyard” (Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril, $29.95, Princeton Univ. Press, 288 pp.) and beesinyourbackyard.com; “The Polinator Victory Garden” (Kim Eierman, $26.99, Quarry Books, 160 pp.)
Provide a home: Leave an area of open, undisturbed soil, preferably sunny, for ground dwellers. Cavity nesters need pithy-stemmed plants such as Joe Pye weed, fallen logs or tree snags; they also can live in human-made bee hotels.
Offer a drink: Keep a plant saucer or a shallow dish filled with colorless pebbles and water or mud.
Set a diverse buffet: Replace the ‘green desert’ of lawns with native annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees for a succession of blooms spring through fall; heavy on yellows, blues and whites, with different petal shapes and sizes.
Make it a party: Provide ‘floral targets’ with 3-foot square or more swaths of the same blooming plants, or at least groupings across the yard. No room? Coordinate with neighbors to create a pollinator corridor.
Don’t clean up: Leave overwintering habitat such as fallen leaves and stems in an area of the garden with no mulch.
This is not about beekeeping, which aside from being impractical in most urban yards does nothing for native bee populations. Honey bees are naturalized immigrants introduced by European colonists in 1622. Native bees do not build hives or produce honey for humans. Nor are they aggressive.
While bumble bees are semi-social, with ground nests that may have several dozen cells, most natives are solitary creatures. Many are ground dwellers. Others live in cavities. Either way, many spend most of their lives at home, emerging only for about three to six weeks to do their pollination-procreation business before they die. Lawns, lawnmowers, leaf blowers and mulch are not their friends. To stick around, they need habitat that might look unsightly to humans.
An ideal ground nesting site is a sunny patch of undisturbed, open soil, which can be hidden by a surround of plants that don’t cast too much shade. Some species overwinter in burrows left by other insects or rodents. Cavity dwellers prefer fallen logs, tree snags and hollow plant stems, such as those of Joe Pye weed, which can be cut and left out for them over the winter.
Man-made bee hotels are a decent substitute for cavities in urban gardens. Available at some garden centers, they also are easy to make: They’re just boxes, usually elevated off the ground, stuffed with tubes of various sizes to accommodate different species and nesting habits. For example, mason bees plug their nests with mud, while leaf cutters use plant material.
Wizzie Brown, a Texas A&M Agrilife extension program specialist, says bee houses need to be managed to succeed. She recommends a type that can be taken apart and cleaned after the bees have left in the winter; or one made with cardboard tubes that can be replaced. If you want females (and you do), the box should be at least six inches deep. Bees lay female eggs at the back of the nest so they don’t get pushed out by the males, which emerge first.
The active season lasts from spring through fall, which brings us to the pretty part: flowers.
Native bees prefer native flowers, not hybrid cultivars, and tend to favor blossoms in yellows, blues and white. Different species need different blossom shapes. To attract a variety, provide open-petaled flowers such as asters, coneflowers, rudbeckias and blue mist flowers along with more complex, vertical flowers such as salvias. Bees also visit flowering crops including basils, peppers and borage.
Since species emerge at different times, plant for a succession of blossoms spring through fall, including native flowering trees, shrubs and vines. Make it diverse but sufficient, Eierman says. She recommends massing identical flowers in swaths of at least 3 square feet if possible, to give native bees a “flower target”; or placing bunches at various spots in the yard.
“If you’re planting one of this and one of that, you’re not really helping them,” she says. “Bees go out dozens of times a day foraging, looking for one species of plant.”
The smaller the species — and some natives are teensy — the narrower their foraging range. Some travel only a few hundred feet; others can wander a mile in search of a meal. Along the way they also need water, but they can drown in bird baths and fountains. Give them a drink in a potted plant saucer of small pebbles filled with water. Change it often to discourage mosquitos.
And don’t use pesticides, including mosquito misters. Even those that are not fatal to bees destroy their immune systems. “Eliminating pesticides is absolutely essential. No middle ground on that,” Eierman says. “It’s a matter of rethinking our perspective. More than 90 percent of insects in home landscapes are beneficial or benign.”
Speaking of which, also forget that Asian giant hornet, the so-called “murder hornets” whose fame went viral after a few were found in Washington State. Those predators have not been seen elsewhere in the United States, yet “people are starting to kill everything they think may be it,” says Brown.
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