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.

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.

Nov 20 2010

Late, late wildflowers and their visitors

We’ve been watching some bumblebee drones on our domestic flowers. Then I noticed what I think was a Lasioglossum (tiny solitary bee) on our Christmas camelias.

I got to wondering what wildflowers are still out there, and are there any wild bees still visiting? And what other insects are still active on the flowers?

We’ve had a run of clear weather, with chilly nights and moderately warm days. Today was in the low 70s with brilliant sunshine. It’s been near frost several times, but only has touched a few places.

The massive fall bloom of the tall goldenrod, mistflower, frostweed, and the various sunflower look-alikes, has ended. The fields and roadsides are pretty barren of wildflowers now. What flowers I found, were pretty much along stream banks.

Common buckeye

Finding a small patch of frostweed (Aster pilosus), I immediately spotted two very tattered buckeye butterflies nectering. These guys are obviously elderly versions of their species, and can’t go much longer, because there is not much bloom left.

Syrphid fly

Syrphid fly on frostweed

A little closer observation showed up two syrphid flies, a dronefly, and another red-eyed fly.

Dronefly on frostweed

Red-eyed fly

Cucumber beetle on goldenrod

Closer to the stream, I found a tiny patch of goldenrod (Solidago sp.) with only a cucumber beetle on it. Then I found a forerunner of a winter wildflower – henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) that usually is a favorite of honeybees, but I did not see any on this isolated flower. Many more of these flowers will come later.


A shrub with some blossoms looks like something in the blueberry/huckleberry line – but they bloom in the spring. Is this a bush that got confused about the season, or is this a species that is unfamiliar to me? No insects were visiting.


Looking out across the creek, which has been dammed by beavers, I saw huge numbers of yellow flowers – probably Bidens laevis, or tickseed, which likes wet areas, but which is now gone from the ditchbanks on upland areas. Unfortunately I could not see if any insects were visiting, without launching a canoe.

Beaver pond with Bidens laevis

Another little patch of asters had a red wasp feeding hungrily. This aster has a red center, different from the usual yellow center of frostweed, so it may be a difference species, or it may just be a varient.

Red wasp

A patch of mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) still had some viable bloom, but no insects were spotted on them. In September and October, mistflower is a favorite of Megachilid bees, but none were seen today.

Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)

While I was taking photos, a ladybug came by and landed on my hand. A cursory look suggests that it’s an Asian, not one of the native species, that are becomming rare.

Asian ladybug

Trying to hide in the goldenrod was a small paper wasp. I was especially surprised to see this gal. I wonder if she is a queen, getting one last little feed before hibernating…

Paper wasp

Finally I struck real paydirt! Some scattered goldenrods had a little green bee working on them. It could be Augochlora, Augochlorella, or Augochloropsis, though I could not catch it for a positive ID. Perhaps one of our readers with expertise could comment.

Halictid green bee

And last, but not least, along came another old friend – a much larger green bee, Agapostemon splendens.

Agapostemon splendens

All in all, I consider today’s expedition to the creek a highly successful adventure, especially with finding these two solitary sweat bees so late in the season!

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.