Dec 4 2010

New guide available on increasing native bee benefits

Native bee benefits:  How to increase native bee pollination on your farm

Written by:  Neal Williams, Bryn Mawr College, (610-526-5091,
and Rachael Winfree, Rutgers University (732-932-8315,

Can be downloaded from:

The pamphlet is a very informative one, with some really good photos as well, and I commend the authors on providing a good new resource for pollination management.

While I heartily endorse much of the pamphlet as very valuable, there are a couple misleading points,  and one glaring error that I’d like to point out as a critique. Perhaps the authors need to consider this for an update.

1. Much is made of colony collapse disorder in honeybees. This is similar to past unexplained die-offs that have occasionally occured in beekeeping history, only this one was at a larger scale. Much of this loss seems to have run its course, and the bees were easily and quickly replaced, except in cases of beekeeper bankruptcy. At any rate the beekeeping industry, with some research help, is on the way to solutions to CCD.

What is not made clear is that wild bees are not so quickly and easily replaced; thus are of much more concern. And with this, we go back to the biggest problem for all bees, which beekeepers have been trying to solve for a couple generations, and have been unable to get any significant help.

The problem is pesticide misuse – violation of the pesticide label directions – that continue to occur. In most cases wild bees and feral honeybees have no legal protection; lip service is given to protecting managed honeybees, but most “protection” involves advising pesticide users to evade the pesticide directions, by notification of beekeepers.

A pesticide user is the one who makes the choice to use a pesticide, and he is responsible for its safe use, yet these notification schemes allow him to dump the trouble and expense for protecting the bees onto others who are not benefited and have no way to recoup the costs.

Pesticide misuse is the greatest single danger to all bee species. Wild bee advocates and beekeepers need to be working together to get enforcement of label directions – which generally forbid applications in conditions where they are a threat to foraging bees. (And the labels only say “bees,” yet the pesticide cops tend to interpret this clear direction as only applying to honeybees.)

2. Several times the pamphlet mentions “attracting bees.” This is a flawed mindset. When populations are thin, bees can’t be attracted, or if they are attracted in small numbers, they tend to go to the rich food sources planted to attract them, rather than to the crops that need pollination.

What is needed is another mindset – pollination managers need to have an overall view that strives to restore stable normal populations of bees by giving them habitat, including nesting sites, continuous forage, and pesticide protection. The pamplet does explain this, but undoes it to a certain extent, by frequent reference to “attracting bees.” When pollinator populations return to normal, competition for forage will ensure that ALL blossoms get the required visitation.

3. Carpenter bees are NOT good blueberry pollinators. They are notorious nectar thieves with flowers with a deep corrolla, such as blueberries. Then they leave a slit in the side of the corrolla, enabling other bees to happily steal the nectar as well, without contacting the sexual organs of the flower.

Carpenter bees are excellent pollinators of fruits with open-faced flowers, such as blackberries, apples, plums, peaches; and of flowers designed for a large bee, such as passionflower.

May 27 2010

Three new occupants at the wild bee house!

I’ve been seeing cuts in tender young leaves around home, so I knew we had some Megachilid leaf cutter bees.

Leaf cut by a leafcutter

Leaf cut by a leafcutter

I’ve always wanted to get photos of them cutting leaves, but have not been able to do so. I have spotted them in the air, carrying leaves, and tried to follow their flight to their homes, but they are fast and I haven’t been able to do this either.

I wondered how long it would be before we had leaf cutter nests in our wild bee house. I need wonder no longer.

The leaf cutter nest is plugged by pieces of leaf.

The leaf cutter nest is plugged by pieces of leaf.

I have not yet seen the leaf cutter bee.

We also have a halictid bee entering the holes. This little green bee is such a fast flyer that the photo below is the only usable photo I could get of her, so far.

Halictid bee peers out from nest, prior to flight.

Halictid bee peers out from nest, prior to flight.

Also, we now have another species of potter wasp nesting in some of the holes in the wood. She is as long as the first, but much more slender and fragile looking.

A second kind of potter wasp is now nesting.

A second kind of potter wasp is now nesting.

Every day is now an adventure at the wild bee house, with new activity showing up all the time. I feel a bit like a fireman, who intersperces long hours of boredom with intense moments of pumping adrenalin.

May 27 2010

Plan Bee

There are increasing numbers of articles on alternative pollinators in the media and I will be posting links to some of them on this blog.

One problem is that many articles are simply hype, of The-Sky-is-Falling type. I’m going to skip these. Other articles have a lot of useful information, but still are unbalanced. I will carefully chose some of these for the information they offer, but also want to give a caveat, when they are unbalanced.

A good illustration is an article which appeared yesterday in The Minneapolis Observer Quarterly, entitled The Secret Strife of Bees. The article is better than most public media articles, but the editors damage it, by adding a question at the top: 

“…to our mind, anyway, raised the question, why are we shipping bees across country when local native bees will pollinate our crops for free?”

To which I responded: Be careful of not reversing cause and effect! The reason honeybees are trucked for pollination is that local native bees were NOT doing the job. And the reason for that is two fold:
1. Fields and orchards are getting every larger, leading to a massive bloom all at once. The rest of the season, the area has no feed for bees, and even may be toxic to bees, because of pesticide use.
2. Wild bee populations are in worse shape than honeybee populations in many areas. The honeybees may well be the indicator of the problems that face all bees. But wild bees have no human keepers to defend and care for them, so they are even more vulnerable to pesticide misuse. Indeed, here in South Carolina (and I presume in many states), the pesticide cops specifically exclude wild bees from consideration in any pesticide enforcement.

Honey bee pollination has filled in the gap. Actually many of our food crops originate in the same home areas as honeybees, so they are ideal pollinators. Native bees can be better for some native plants like squash – IF they are present.

Commercial beekeepers have a struggle, if they try to make their living on honey production, which is viable only in some areas of the US, and which is in competition with cheap foreign imports.

Pollination cannot be imported, and there is a huge demand for it – which makes pollination service a better business model for commercial beekeepers. The bulk of our agricultural pollination is done by a few hundred beekeeping operations (mostly families), and we would face some severe food shortages if they ceased doing what they do.

Beekeepers have, at least for now, solved the pollinator shortage by becoming migratory, following the bloom from south to north, much as the combines follow the harvest for grains.

Visit this article at: The Secret Strife of Bees

A better and more comprehensive article can be found in an article entitled Plan Bee at the Audibon Magazine.  The article still lacks some balance, as there is an underlying assumption that honeybees will disappear and wild bees will save the day. This fails to recognize that honeybees are the de facto workhorses of American agriculture, and will be so for the foreseeable future. Wild bees are needed to supplement this, no doubt, but are unlikely to replace honeybees.

Honeybee keepers are staying on top of the situation, and becoming ever better at their craft. Many of the better keepers are untouched by Colony Collapse Disorder. At the same time, we are just in the beginning stages of learning how to use wild bees in agricultural pollination – and in many cases we have a long way to go to make them cost effective.

Advisors who tell farmers that wild bees will take care of their pollination needs run a big risk. I’ve seen massive and costly crop failures from lack of pollination when the wild bees did not come to save the day. I’ve seen farm bankruptcies that I believe were largely caused by lack of pollination.

So read the Audibon article to glean the valuable information contained, while remembering that they are tending to demean honeybees just a bit too much, and to laud wild bees just a bit too much.

Categorical statements that are made are not always true. For example it is stated that honeybees will not work tomatoes. I have seen honeybees work tomatoes and I know some pollination was accomplished. I will agree that they are not reliable at visiting tomatoes, nor are they the most effective pollinators. I just want to add some truth to balance the hype.

It is also said that honeybees do not buzz pollinate. Likewise that is not true, though they use a different mechanism. Honeybees will clasp a flower then actually “fly” while holding the flower, in order to shake pollen loose. Folks who claim honeybees do not buzz flowers have not been watching honeybees for long.

Another misleading point is that tomatoes self pollinate. Actually they are very poor at self pollinating, as anyone who has tried to raise them in a greenhouse can attest. Tomatoes self pollenize; they are self fertile; but they need aid to move the pollen, so they do not self pollinate.

Wind can provide the motion to shake the pollen free and move it to the stigmas, but of course the best pollinator is a bee which can create resonance with the flower’s natural frequency. This will release large quantities of pollen from the anthers.

Some of this may be confusion of terms. To pollenize is to provide pollen. The pollenizer is the daddy, the sire, or the “John” if you wish. To pollinate is to move pollen from anther to stigma. A pollinator is the agent that does such movement; the artificial-insemination technician, if you are a breeder; or the “pimp” (if you in another field).

So plants are never pollinators, unless they actually bring together the anther and stigma to move self fertile pollen.  Some legumes like peanuts actually do this. But it is rare in the plant world and does not happen with tomatoes. Likewise, bees are never pollenizers; they cannot produce pollen.

Again, I encourage readers to glean the good information available and balance it with other good information and reason.

So I say “Full Speed Ahead!” to the restoration of wild bees , and the study of their use as valuable pollinators, while also adding a “Hurrah” for our honeybees without which we would suffer some serious food shortages.

May 24 2010

We have occupants!

Our first occupant in our new wild bee house didn’t get us very excited, as we assumed she’d be there. That is the eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica), and we were sure she’d find a spot somewhere in the rafters. She made several starts – I think plywood glue deterred her a couple times – and then succeeded in creating a nest in one of the 2×4 braces.

Carpenter bee hole

New carpenter bee nest

I’ve seen her working, and there’s sawdust under her hole – but she’s in too awkward a spot for photos to show her working. Note that her hole enters the wood, then takes a right angle immediately.

The second occupant got me all excited, because I was hoping we’d get a mason bee. When I spotted mud plugs in some of the canes, I started watching more intensely. It turned out to be (I think) a mason or potter wasp. I’m glad to have her – she’s a valuable addition to the beneficial insect club around here – but – she’s not what I was hoping for.

I’ve asked a couple of experts to verify what she is.

Potter wasp applying mud to seal its nest

Potter wasp applying mud to seal its nest

It’s no surprise; I’ve drilled holes in our dead trees and other spots before, in hopes of getting mason bees to nest. But they are always occupied by potter wasps. I assumed I was just getting them up too late, so we made sure to have our bee house up early.

Mason bees are around. I’ve seen them on the apple blossoms, and nesting in tongue and groove decks – so I expect sooner or later they will come. But probably not this year…they are spring bees, and spring is essentially over.

The third occupant is really a thrill! On April 30 I went to investigate a report of bees in a goat pasture and found colonies of Anthophora in a bare clay patch. After I took photos, I dug up a couple nests, and also captured about a dozen adults. I brought the adults home and released them next to the beehouse. None of them stayed, to my disappointment.

Anthophora coming and going from old nest

Anthophora coming and going from old nest

I also placed the clod of clay with the nests on the beehouse. This apparently was more successfull. I assume the adults we are now seeing have matured in this nest. Now they are starting to nest in the clay wall. Whoo hoo!

Anthophora beginning nests in the clay wall

Anthophora beginning nests in the clay wall

The third bee (and fourth occupant) is a tiny one we haven’t seen yet. She has drilled holes in the blackberry stems, and two of them are plugged with mud, indicating a finished nest inside.

A nest is started by drilling a  hole in a blackberry cane

A nest is started by drilling a hole in a blackberry cane

This has not changed in several days, and I hope nothing has happened to this tiny gal. I’m told that Ceratina bees like to nest in blackberry canes, so this is a possibility.

A mud-sealed hole in the blackberry cane indicates a finished nest

A mud-sealed hole in the blackberry cane indicates a finished nest

So, we are on the way! I am still hoping for a lot more species – there’s a variety of hole sizes.

Ants coming and going from potter wasp nest may be killing occupants or eating their feed

Ants coming and going from potter wasp nest may be killing occupants or eating their feed

One possible detriment to this concentration of nests – ants are showing a lot of interest in the potter bee nests. I hope they are not doing damage to them.

We’ll see!

All you insect experts, please add your comments.

The Old Drone

Apr 6 2010

Waiting…and waiting…and waiting…

Completed wild bee house

Completed wild bee house

Our wild bee house has been complete for over three weeks; spring has finally arrived; flowers are blooming; yet no bees, except carpenter bees have shown interest in these luxury accomodations we provided.

We’ve been through the Bradford pear, the domestic pear, dandelion, vetch, redbud, henbit, and many other early blossoms. Now we have the apples and the dogwoods blooming.

A few solitary bees are around. I’ve seen a beautiful honeybee-sized gunmetal blue megachilid bee on the apple blossoms, as well as a few honeybees and another smaller bee I cannot identify.

Megachilid on apple

Megachilid, probably blue orchard bee on Pink Lady apple blossom

Southeastern blueberry bees have been spotted on the redbud, the Bradford pear, and, of course, the blueberries.

There are little green bees looking over our pine-tree stumps in the back yard and going into the cracks in the bark. These are halictid bees (of four possible genera that I can’t resolve)

Green halictid bee

Green halictid bee

I’ve seen a few tiny moving bees along at ground level that I think are Lasioglossum. One honeybee-sized bee with a red abdomen was investigating the bare dirt of one of our raised garden beds.

Very few of the intermediate-sized polyester bees are around anymore – ten or fifteen years ago, these used to arrive in massive numbers when the Bradford pears bloomed. Now they are scarce.

But nothing comes to the cane bundles in the bee house!

Cane bundles for bee nest sites

Cane bundles for bee nest sites

I’ve gone out to some remote areas and netted some of the wild bees, which I brought back and released by the bee house. None stayed.

Anyone with any suggestions on how to get any to nest???