May 18 2011

Turning our place into a bee sanctuary has paid off big-time!

No blossom drop!

Every flower in the cluster set fruit.

In many years, I’ve not seen tomatoes set every blossom, as they have this year. There are few of the blossom clusters with a “hole” where there is no tomato forming.

I’ve been exulting each morning as I watch the bumblebees “buzzing” the flowers. As they taper off, and go to other flowers, they are replaced by little flying emeralds – the tiny, in-your-face green bees that happily gather the remnants the bumblebee left.

Not everyone is aware of the debt we owe to the bees. Pollination can be the limiting factor for many crops, including tomatoes. I have had years when I added compost, adjusted the pH with lime, fertilized, and carefully weeded the plants I set out, only to see many of the blossoms drop off, and the total crop wind up a sorry one.

Tomato flowers do not give the bees nectar, only pollen, but this pollen is gathered by the bees for the nutrition of their young. As they do so, they make a trade with the tomato plants by aiding the fertilization of the seeds that will make next year’s crop.

In another blog post, I’ll discuss the mechanisms of pollen release, which is different for tomatoes than most crops, as well as discuss the popular myth of “self pollinating” tomatoes.

But for now, I just simply want to rejoice and enjoy the fruits of the labors of my little friends.

Feb 5 2011

Gardening for bees in the Southeast: Part I

Not only are we sorting seeds and making plans for our veggie garden, but we are planning for the bees as well. It’s kind of a rule of thumb around here that we don’t plant anything unless it feeds us, or feeds the bees, or feeds wildlife.

In planning for the bees, we want to have a continuous supply of nectar and pollen sources throughout the growing season, which extends from mid-March to about December 1 here in coastal South Carolina.

We have a huge flush of spring blossoms here, so we don’t need to focus on this too much. Then follows a hot, sometimes dry, summer season, which is quite barren for the bees. Autumn brings back more flowers again, expecially if we have good late summer rains. But fall is not usually as good as spring for the bees.

Megachilid bee on butterfly weed

Megachilid bee on butterfly weed: Note the "scopa" - the pollen collecting hairs on her belly, which enable her to be an excellent pollinator, as well as save some pollen to feed her babies.


(Note that we are not speaking just of honeybees for this garden project, though they will benefit. There are several hundred species of bees in the Southeast, ranging from the large carpenter bee, and some of the larger species of bumblebees, down to tiny Lasioglossum and Ceratina bees that are sometimes hardly bigger than gnats. Favorites of mine include the “Jelly Belly” bees – megachilids that carry bright colored pollen on their abdomens and my “Little Green Bees from Mars” the gorgeous in-your-face green colored halictid bees.)

Besides plantings, we provide a number of other services to help the bees. We have dripping water for drinks and mud for the ones who use this. We have patches of bare ground, both sandy and clay for the bees that prefer ground nesting. We also have reeds and bored wood blocks for nesting sites.

And we are extremely careful with pesticides – never using them in any way that would contaminate nectar and pollen. We can’t control what our neighbors do, but we’ve done our best to educate them that you can’t lay Sevin dust all over your blooming squash and cukes…or you’ll bite the hand that feeds you!

In other posts, I’ll talk about some individual flowers that are of special interest, and we’ll discuss what we already have in trees, fruits, and wild and domestic flowers that feed bees. But right now I want to list the wildflower seeds that I have already purchased or plan to very soon. These are ones that seem to be of special value to a variety of bee species.

After careful consideration, this is the core list of native plant choices to add to our collection this year:

1. Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa (great for Monarch butterflies as well)

2. Anise Hyssop, Agastache foeniculum

3. Rice Button Aster, Aster dumosus

4. White Swan Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea

5. New York Ironweed, Vernonia noveboracensis and Purple Ironweed, Vernonia fasciculata

5. Joe Pye Weed, Eupatorium dubius or E. fistulis

6. Hairy Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum pilosum

In another post we’ll also review some non-native possibilities that I may also plant.

This is a regional list, of course. But most of the lists I’ve seen are for the North or for the West. These are ones that I’m certain will do exceptionally well in the Southeast.

Note that I’m focusing on perennials. This is partly because I’m a cheapskate who doesn’t want to keep on buying the same seeds each year – and partly because we are looking at the long term.

People often talk about “attracting bees” to get their garden veggies pollinated. This is a crock! It’s very shortsighted thinking. If we just plant attractive flowers, the few bees around will simply bypass our garden veggies. We want to plan and plant for the long term – to build bee populations back up to the way they used to be. Then there will be enough competition that even less attractive garden veggies will get bee visits.

Lasioglossum on spiderwort

Little Lasioglossum bees love to collect pollen from the spiderwort wildflowers that are already established at our little wildlife refuge.

Most of these will be started early to be transplanted after frost danger is past. I hope to able to sell some plants to recoup my costs. And what I can’t sell or use, I’ll probably plant out in some wild spots and hope for the best.

I would love to hear from others, particularly if you can add some very good species to the list, but all comments are welcome.

Jan 21 2011

Honeybees have more pesticide protection than wild bees

Unfortunately those who keep and work with honeybees, and those who work with wild bees sometimes become such strong advocates that they divide into warring camps, when they have so much in common that they should be working together.

Honeybees have an industry organized around them; wild bees have some support groups, but they tend to be small. But the bees have very similar needs of habitat, parasites and pests problems, and especially pesticide practices of their forage areas.

I received a very strong objection from a wild bee advocate, to my statement that honeybees have more protection than wild bees. The advocate pointed out the various groups that have arisen to help protect the wild bees.

Because it was a private e-mail, I cannot post that person’s comments here, but perhaps I was not sufficiently specific in my statement, so I will post  a clarification: I’ve found that anyone who works in a public job (research, extension) is highly reluctant to take on pesticide misuse (job security perhaps?).  And the pesticide cops here in SC, very pointedly exclude wild bees from pesticide label protection.

On the other hand, beekeepers like myself have been active and vocal in trying to get enforcement of label directions. Any time there are crops or weeds in bloom in an application area, bees (of all kinds) are at risk, and the pesticide labels have specific instructions to not apply when bees will be damaged by the contamination of their food supply.

Agricultural advisors such as extension, and the pesticide cops themselves, usually do not base their bee protection advice on the pesticide labels.

Instead they suggest a “run-around” (ie. notify beekeepers) that enables pesticide users to evade the label directions – and offers NO protection at all for wild bees.

Ask any serious beekeeper, and he will tell you of times when his beehives were knocked out of productive service by a pesticide applied in violation of the label (whether or not he or she was notified of the application). Sometimes the entire field force of a hive is wiped out. Other times the adults do not die, but bring long lasting poisoned pollen back to be stored away in the hives, then fed to the young during the winter when the hives are extremely vulnerable, due to lack of fresh clean pollen being foraged. Thus a summer poison can kill a hive months later.

Now honeybee hives that had damage usually get the keeper’s best efforts at salvage/recovery, including feeding, removal of contaminated frames of pollen, and sometimes combining two or more hives – better one hive surviving, than two or more weak ones dying over the winter.

Wild bees get none of this help. If the adult bee is poisoned and dies, there will be no more nest building. If it carries contaminated pollen back to provision its young, the young will die, and there will be no next generation.

I am sure you understand that I am glad that wild bees are getting more, attention, and thus may be getting more protection. But all it takes is one severe “hit” at the wrong time to do some serious damage to a species in the area.

And I think you’ll agree that it’s easier (albeit expensive) to replace lost honeybees than to replace lost wild bees when they are destroyed.

That is why wild bee advocates and honeybee advocates need to join together. Whenever there is sloppy, careless pesticide applications that do not take the bee protection label instructions seriously, BOTH wild and domestic bees will suffer, but the wild bees will probably suffer more.

Note: A flow chart that organizes label directions to protect bees can be found at:

Dec 5 2010

Wild bee house update and a mystery

Overall, our wild bee house was a bit of a disappointment, as only a small number of the canes were used. We did have at least one carpenter bee nest in the framework of the bee house, and we had some Anthophora bees that we brought in in clay lumps emerge and renest.

The greatest success was with the blackberry canes. Every one was drilled out and plugged with mud. This was early in the season, and we never saw the creature that did this, but we are assuming it was a tiny Ceratina bee. We have captured live adult ones in the area.

Blackberry canes were all inhabited

Blackberry canes were all inhabited


This certainly would encourage us to put out more of the blackberry canes next year.

With the river canes, only an occasional one was used. Early in the season we have about a half dozen that were plugged with leaves, possibly with the orchard mason bees that visited our apple trees. We did not seen any further adult activity after spring, and the nests plugs were removed not too long after they were placed. It’s possible that a new generation emerged, but we think it more likely that fire ants found the nests and had the tenants for a meal. I have tried to maintain fire ant control, but new nests start frequently and often are unnoticed at first.

Some others had mud plugs. Early in the season, we saw the two wasp species shown in earlier posts, making these nests. But the early ones were also opened, just like the leafcutter ones, and this also may have been fire ant depredations. I think the effect of fire ants on wild bees (and thereby on pollination) should be investigated more extensively.

More canes were filled later in the season. As often as we checked, we never saw these built, and do not know exactly what insects built these.

Only a few of the other canes were plugged

Only a few of the other canes were plugged


Only a few of the other canes were plugged

Only a few of the other canes were plugged


Only a few of the other canes were plugged

Only a few of the other canes were plugged


A mysterious visitor apparently nested in two of these tubes and started a third, but did not seal it.

Beehouse mystery inhabitant

Beehouse mystery inhabitant

The nesting material appears to be pine straw.  Does anyone know what could be in these?

My original plan was to open some of the canes for photos and further study, but there are so few occupied that I think I will let them “bee” until spring, and try to watch carefully to see if we can spot them emerging.

A couple construction details:  I had originally intended to use plastic pipe for the outer containers for the river canes and blackberry canes, but I dropped that idea when some free large bamboo was donated to me. Since four-inch plastic pipe is no longer cheap, I went with the idea, but I don’t think I will again. Almost all the bamboo split on one side, thus reducing the weather protection it afforded.

The drilled wood had very few inhabitants, and I think I’ll remove the large stumps from next spring’s bee house. I think to replace them with smaller drilled blocks with paper tubes inside each of them, so I can better check for parasites and live occupancy.

I welcome suggestions for modifications for next year’s wild bee house. A number of folks have made suggestions for this year’s and these were incorporated.

 As always, we are continuing to add forage plants that we find are bee-attractive, so we hope to continue to build up populations.

One thing about the bee house is that it has made us keener observers of bee activity. When I see some motion along the surface of the ground, I always look to see if it is a bee nesting or looking for a nest site. In this way, I’ve found sites, and learned the type of habitat that they prefer.

All in all, though nesting was not extensive in the wild bee house, it was quite a learning experience and I am looking forward to next year.

Dec 4 2010

Best paper yet on Colony Collapse Disorder

Without any additions, clarifications, or critiques, I can freely endorse the linked article as the most balanced and comprehensive article I’ve seen on the subject of CCD:

Bees in Crisis: A comprehensive situation report: 

While this article specifically concerns honeybees, it is of great interest to those concerned about wild bee species as well. Honeybees have more research and more protectors, and may well serve as indicators as to what is happening with wild bees.