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 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???

Dec 4 2009

Why the pollination page? Why pollinator v2.0

On an early summer morning in 1990, I happened to notice a roadside watermelon field outside the normal watermelon growing area here in South Carolina. The field looked beautiful with nice healthy plants already filling the rows, but there were only a few developing melons visible, when there should have been many.

I stopped to look. There were no beehives to be seen, nor were there any bees foraging in the field, though there were plenty of blossoms, and it was the prime time of day for them to be out. There was a scanty production of good melons; most of the developing melons were stunted, gnarly and misshappen. Obviously the farmer was headed for crop failure.

I knew the source of the problem, as this was my business, but I wanted more details and they were soon provided by a young man who came into the field with a shovel. He was knocking off the deformed melons, in hopes that good ones would form on later blossoms.

I felt bad for him when I heard his story. He was a high school student who planned to study agriculture in college. The watermelon field was his project to add to his college fund, as well as to gain experience.

He certainly got the latter, but, as to profit, he was losing big time. I told him about pollination and the need for bees. He said he’d talked with the Clemson agent about the project, but bees had never been mentioned. All his other cultural methods had followed the official recommendations.

The plants were beautiful; they were also planted so as to bear on the early and profitable market. But they weren’t producing a marketable crop.

It was a good illustration of Lieberg’s Law of the Minimum (or Law of the Limiting Factor). All the cultural factors were present, but one, and that was pollination. He had paid out to till the soil, buy seed, herbicide and fertilizer, the weather had been perfect; but he still was failing.

He told me when the first blossoms opened, he had seen a few “bumblebees” and they were coming from an old tobacco pack house, but they had stopped coming. This explained the few good melons that had formed. These were actually carpenter bees, not bumblebees and they had gone dormant after their normal spring flush here in South Carolina.

In all the time I was around this field, I never did see a single bumblebee or any other wild bee, which was  unusual at that time. During the previous fall, we had experienced massive post-hurricane aerial spraying for mosquitoes during the peak of the goldenrod and aster bloom, and the applications were largely made (illegally) when bees were foraging on them in the warm fall afternoons. Since I had experienced terrible losses of my own honeybees at this time, I have no doubt that bumblebees and other wild bees had similar losses.

Well we hustled up some beehives to help out this young man, and he wound up with a huge second crop. But they ripened for the late market when they were worth practically nothing. Just think what he could have made, if he had caught the early market!

Watermelon growers, especially the smaller ones, used to rely on a large number of wild bees, such as bumblebees, for their crop pollination. Generally this was simply assumed and given no further thought. Today, growers are placing bee hives in their fields, or they are going out of the watermelon business. Background pollination has thinned to near the vanishing point, and today’s grower has to manage pollination just like any other cultural factor.

The Pollination Home Page was first conceived as an aid to help growers deal with pollinator decline and give them the how-tos of pollination management. Soon I was beseiged by e-mails from gardeners having pollination problems. And I began to think about how much of the food for our songbirds needs pollination.

Today this is a much larger problem than just an agricultural one. Pollinator decline is a major environmental issue today, yet it still doesn’t make it onto the list for many who otherwise care about our environment.

 Now at the tail end of 2009, I am undertaking a major revision of The Pollination Home Page. I plan to keep and enhance the previous material that dealt with pollination and our food supply, and focused attention especially on honeybees. And I plan to enlarge the page to include much more on the totality of environmental issues of today.

Among other things we’ll be looking at climate change, native vs alien, degradation and repair of our soils, and many similar issues.

One good thing has happened since this page was begun. Originally we felt that we were a “voice in the wilderness.” Today pollination is getting much more attention (still not enough, but a lot better) – and we plan to include links to some of the best work in this area today, and maybe sometimes some critiques of those who get wild and whacky.

We’ve advanced a bit in technolgy. Our photos are better quality, and now video has come of age on the Internet. I hope to use these as tools to improve the look of the page. We also have this blog, which gives more opportunity for opinions, and even to stray a bit into other areas, as well as give readers a chance to comment.

Pollinator version 2.0 hopes to guide readers through the huge quantity of information and opinion now avaiable, from the persective of someone who has lived pollination for his career and much of his life.

So welcome aboard, readers, and please come back soon. We are off to a new adventure!

The Old Drone