Protecting & Nurturing Native Bees

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Pollinator Garden, one year old and already flourishing

On Beyond Honeybees

As I was watering the year-old pollinator garden at the Senior Center this morning, I noticed over a dozen kinds of bees busy at work. That made me very happy, because it meant that native bees who found the young garden last year have moved in and are making their home either in the garden or at least nearby. Native bees are a varied lot and it’s not surprising that that honeybees get the most attention; honeybees are plump and adorable and honey is delicious. Indeed, until fairly recently, if you searched for information about making a pollinator garden, most suggestions would be for food and shelter appropriate for honeybees. In recent years, native pollinators are winning more notice, which is great, because there are a lot more of them than most folks suspect. There are over 4,000 bee species in North America, and Washington State is home to over 600 of them (nobody knows exactly how many). It’s very satisfying to create native bee gardens, which will of course nourish honeybees as well. Why not?

Besides the best-known Orchard Masons, there are about 75 more Mason bee species in the Pacific Northwest alone. Like most solitary bees, most of them only forage about 3-500 feet from their homes. If you want them to return year after year to your garden, it’s VERY important not to disturb their nests, which are often underground. Rather than creating hives, solitary bees may live and nest either above or below ground. Lacking spiffy, straw-equipped bee houses, most will lay their eggs in holes in logs and stumps, or in hollow stems and old grasses and other small spaces, adding lumps of pollen for the emerging baby bees to feed on. Years ago, I corresponded with Brian Griffin, founder of Knox Cellars and the first person to offer Orchard Mason bee kits commercially. Brian was the inspiration for my first bee watching sessions with my kids, both under 10 at the time. They proved to be sharp observers and we filled our naturalist notebooks with sketches and descriptions of dozens of bees and other pollinators that summer.

Watch And Learn

In one letter, Brian wrote that all summer long, “various species of solitary bees are having their brief time in the sun. For instance, I put up a nesting block with 1/8th inch holes just to see what would happen. As a result I have met a tiny wasp that preys on aphids, stinging them to paralyze but not to kill. They stuff 35 to 70 of their victims into a tiny hole, lay an egg in amongst them and seal them in with conifer pitch. The larvae eat the aphids one at a time till they are all gone, then they metamorphose into adults, dig their way through the wall of pitch and do it again. These are solitary creatures so they are not at all defensive or should I say offensive? I have recently acquired a whole new population of tiny bees nesting in those same holes that I have never seen before. I don’t even know what they are yet. Take a close look about your garden, you will be amazed at the numbers of different bees you will see, and next week a new species may emerge for their brief time to continue their race.”

Besides stressing the gentle nature of solitary bees, which have no hives to protect, Brian taught me that pollinator gardens should be left as natural as possible. He emphasized that once you’ve got native bees nesting, their area should NOT be tidied up, as removing fading foliage and stems and raking up leafy litter also destroys possible nesting sites and may well remove eggs as well. While raking and digging can destroy underground nests, spreading compost won’t hurt a thing and adding wood chip mulch is positively beneficial. It’s especially important to preserve and protect nests since as he notes above, most solitary bees only have one brief window in which to mate, reproduce and die, and it’s often merely a 12-14 week span.

Get To Know Your Native Bees

There’s a common misconception that ground nesting bees are “bad” but most are gentle creatures that are excellent pollinators. Before spraying a nest, please do some homework and make sure that you aren’t harming beneficial bees! If you aren’t sure which kind of bees are visiting, it’s worth spending time with an insect guide to learn to recognize our tiny neighbors. Good resources include which is a terrific guide for identifying all sorts of North American insects and spiders. When you’re there, check out the link for National Moth Week, which is coming up July 23-31. You can look at images from past years to ID moths you might notice fluttering around your porch lights on balmy summer evenings. To download a pdf with LOTS of bee info, check out the USDA/Forest Service online guide called Bee Basics.

Another common misconception that keeps some people from planting pollinator gardens is the idea that to nurture and support native bees and other native pollinators, all non-native plants must be replaced with huckleberries and salal. Some folks also also worry that non-native plants will bring in honeybees that will crowd out natives. It’s true that some native pollinators are specialists that really do feed mainly on certain plants; Monarch butterflies and milkweeds, for example, or squash bees. However, many native pollinators are generalists that happily harvest nectar and pollen from a wide palette of plants. Research shows that when beds are planted with both native and near-native plants (allies like Asian and native rhododendrons or maples, for example), the beds with the most flowers at any given time get the most pollinator visits. The beds with both native and near-native plants are visited by the greatest number and variety of pollinators overall. However, as the flowering season wears on, pollinator attention shifts to exotic plants which remain in flower longer than the natives. Bottom line? Don’t worry, just plant lots of long bloomers, enjoy the tiny visitors, and don’t be too tidy!

Here’s a link to accurate regional pollinator information:


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