How to attract Native Bees to your wildlife garden

Creating a lawn for native bees: Time to rethink normal

The value of our native bees can’t be underestimated, but every day, every year, every growing season they play second fiddle to those “other” bees.

Their role in the natural world could not be any more clear than their importance to native plants.

(For my article on the important role of native plants, go here.)

In a world where insects and other creepy crawlies get a bad rap, solitary bees are the Rodney Dangerfield of the Bee world.

They certainly don’t deserve that disrespect.

Our Native Bees is a stunningly beautiful book that explores the importance of North America’s endangered pollinators. it is pictured here with a WeeBeeHouse native bee home.

Considering the work native solitary bees do for us, they should actually be celebrated as one of the most important contributors to the natural world and a vital part of our agricultural economy.

Why don’t they get the respect they deserve?

Paige Embry, author of the Our Native Bees book is a true solitary bee aficionado. “It annoys her — rightly — that most people know next to nothing about the 4,000 species of native bees nesting in the ground, in trees and in the sides of our houses,” points out the New York Times, in a review of her book.

The hardest part of getting a bee lawn into use isn’t developing the seed mix; it’s dealing with people’s vision of what a lawn should be…If we didn’t have to worry about our neighbours, I think there would be a much more diverse look.
— Minneapolis Bee researcher

Count me among those who knew “next to nothing about the 4,000 species of native bees.”

I never really gave bees much thought even though the solitary native bees are regulars in our backyard.

After reading her book (Published by nature and garden book publishers Timber Press in 2018) and my own research, I still consider myself a novice when it comes to native bees. There is so much to learn, but Embry’s book is a good beginning for anyone wanting to explore the world of native solitary bees.

Our Native Bees: North America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them is clear and concise, mixed with entertaining stories and anecdotes about author Embry’s journey into discovering North American native bees from her childhood to present day. The book is by no means a dry, complex, scientific or academic approach to protecting and attracting native bees.

It’s their story and she tells the troubled tale with the novice native bee lover in mind.

“Native bees are the poor stepchildren of the bee world,” she writes in the introduction of the book. Honey bees get all the press – the books, the movie deals – and they aren’t even from around here, coming over from Europe with the early colonists.”

She goes on to point out that in 2015 the U.S. federal government “issued a plan to restore 7 million acres of land for pollinators and more than double the research budget for them.”

Sounds great, where’s this disrespect you talk about?

The disrespect came in the name of the new program: the “National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.”

As Embry aptly points out: “Four thousand species of native bees, not to mention certain birds, bats, flies, wasps, beetles, moths, and butterflies, reduced to ‘other pollinators.’ ”

It’s the sad tale of our native bees. But with the efforts of Embry, bee researchers and entrepreneurial dreamers who are working hard to help our native bees get the respect and recognition they deserve, there is certainly some reason to be optimistic for the 4,000 species of native bee that call North America home.

No-one is kidding themselves, however, the story of their survival is still being written and there is no guarantee it will have a fairy-tale ending.

Let’s make this clear from the beginning, Embry has nothing against honey bees.

“They dance and make honey and can be carted around by the thousands in convenient boxes, but from a pollination point of view, they aren’t super-bees. On cool, cloudy days when honey bees are home shivering in their hives, many of our native bees are out working over the flowers. Bumble bees do their special buzz pollination of tomatoes, blueberries, and various wild species…. The trusty orchard mason bees are such hard-working yet slovenly little pollen collectors that several hundred can pollinate an acre of apples that requires thousands of honey bees.”

Embry asks: “Where are the book and movie deals for these bees?”

Where indeed?

Our Native Bees book, however, is a good beginning.

The little black, 195-page gem of a book is actually written in two halves: The first half focuses on the commercial importance of native bees in the agricultural world and tells the story behind California’s massive almond industry among others; the second half explores the importance of the native bees in nature and efforts made to save them including an unlikely pairing between the future of native bees and intensive work being done at a U.S. golf course to create ideal habitat for them and other pollinators.

The Power of Bees

In her final chapter of Our Native Bees, Embry writes about the power of these extremely docile native bees. Here are a few excerpts from that chapter:

Bees have power: They have the obvious power of pollination and supplying us with many of our favourite foods. they also have an unexpected superpower – the ability to form connections and build community among people. … People come together to volunteer at bee labs or help with bee surveys. Some use vacation time to take bee classes and hunt for bees.

Bees are reselient: If we just stop kicking the bees quite so hard, we can help them – and see the results immediately. Renounce pesticides. Plant flowers that bees in your area like. Be a little slovenly in the garden; leave some old broken stems and a little bare dirt show. The bees will come.

Bees are diverse: Most people think of honey bees when they hear the word bee or, even worse, they envision a yellow jacket or some other kinds of wasp. Twenty thousand species rife with differences being reduced to either a very unusual outlier of the group or something that is not a member of the group at all.

In the first half of her book, Embry sets up the difference between imported honey bees and our native bees.

For a complete novice, when it comes to the importance of bees and their role in agriculture, I have to admit that the information Embry provided was both enlightening and fascinating.

Embry’s love affair with bees and her subsequent book actually had its roots with the the tomatoes of her Georgia childhood.

“The summertime table in my house always had a plate of sliced tomatoes on it. … When I grew up and moved away, I too, grew tomatoes…, she writes in the book.

“Some pollination happens as a result of wind just shaking the plants, but more and bigger tomatoes result with the help of bees. Not just any bee can do it, though. It wasn’t until I was nearly fifty that I learned that honey bees can’t produce those tasty red and orange globes. Tomatoes require a special kind of pollination called buzz pollination, where a bee holds onto a flower and vibrates certain muscles that shake the pollen right out of the plant.”

If the idea of flowers growing in the grassy lawn just isn’t quite achievable yet, there’s always the golf course route. Take out some of that lawn and convert it into a home and dining hall for bees. It’s all a matter of rethinking normal.
— Paige Embry

So, it turns out that bumble bees and other native bees are the keys to tomato pollination.

Embry goes on to devote an entire chapter to the question: “Did Greenhouse Tomatoes Kill the Last Franklin’s Bumble Bee?”

You’ll have to read the book to get the answer to that question, but it raises a concern about big agriculture and the future of our native bees.

Native versus naturalized bees

In case you were wondering what’s the difference between Native and Naturalized bees, Embry explains it in the following way: “The North American bee is one that evolved right here. The honey bees we know are not native because they came over from Europe with the early colonists. Some of those early bees escaped into the wild (they went feral), where they did quite well. Those feral bees are considered naturalized, not native.”

Native Bees’ economic value

Like many of us, I had not given much thought to how fruit and nuts get to our table and the importance of pollination to that end.

Little did I know that the pollination of massive orchards and fields were so dependent on bees and that non-native honey bees were the key pollinators. All this despite the fact our native bees are more efficient, harder workers and free for the taking if only we could figure out a way of attracting them to acres and acres of endless orchards and agricultural fields.

It should not come as a surprise that the story of our bees, both honey and native bees, are rooted in the agriculture industry and the bees’ future could very well depend on that same industry for good or bad.

Much has been written lately about the future of bees and other pollinators and how their numbers are being threatened by pesticides.

But enough of that. The agricultural story and the work being done behind the scenes is a fascinating part of the native bee story. The fact that Canadians, more specifically New Brusnwick, played a key role in their story, and not in a good way, furthers my interest in the plight of these fascinating little bees.

Native Bees’ value in our gardens

It’s in our gardens, however, where our focus lies.

Native bees have quickly become a favourite of concerned homeowners many of whom are taking actions in an attempt to save them. Even if it’s nothing more than putting up small bee habitats on their properties where the solitary bees can safely procreate and live their lives. (For my post on WeeBeeHouse native bee habitats see below)

Gardener’s Supply Company, in Burlington, Vermont also offers an impressive native bee house for readers looking to begin provding a home for native bees. Their page also includes an interesting video of the bee house in action. To view it, click here.

Best five things I learned from Our Native Bees

1) There are at least 4,000 species of native bees in North America in every shape, size and colour you can imagine.

2) Sweat bees – beautiful green iridescent native bees – get their name because some like to lick up sweat

3) Most native bees are small, live alone and do not sting either because they have no stingers or are so docile that it would take a life and death situation to get them to sting.

4) Native bees vary in size from the mighty carpenter bee (about an inch in length) to the tiny Holeopasites calliopsidis that isn’t much bigger than Roosevelt’s nose on a dime. And it’s not even the smallest native bee in the United States. That honour goes to Perdita Minima.

5) There are 20,000 species of bees worldwide that are responsible for the seeds of rebirth of three-quarters of the flowering plants in the world.

Bees in the Grass: Rethinking Normal

We all have to take a serious look at the acres of grass that dominate our urban and rural neighbourhoods. (For my post on removing lawns see below.)

Embry wastes little time advocating for a change in the way homeowners see their carpets of monoculture they call grass. She uses an example that is both shocking and encouraging.

She turns her focus to golf courses and goes into great detail about two programs at American golf courses that encourage setting aside natural areas on the golf course for native pollinators.

The first program stems from a 2002 report from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation who teamed up with the U.S. Golf Association to write a report called “Making room for Native Pollinators: How to create Habitat for Pollinator Insects on Golf Courses.”

The second program, and one she turns her attention to, is a program out of Europe, Operation Pollinator, started by Syngenta, one of the world’s largest agrochemical comanies (another name for a pesticide company).

The program started in the United Kingdom in the early 2000s after a survey of golfers revealed that what they liked most about going out for a round of golf was the nature they sometimes stumbled across in the more natural areas of the course. That, together with the desire to reduce the costs of operating a course, lead to the unexpected marriage between nature and a massive pesticide company.

By creating a natural area for pollinators, the pesticide company was able to use their expert biologists to turn perfect turf into pollinator-friendly areas. The plan cut down on the cost of pesticide while at the same time providing more nature for the golfers.

“Operation Pollinator for golf courses came to the United States in 2012, and by 2016 more than 200 golf courses in twenty-nine states had an Operation Pollinator plot. The plots range from half an acre to more than a hundred.”

To say the program has been a smashing success for native bees is a huge understatement.

This program, of course, brings us to our own lawns and gardens.

Embry asks: “What golf courses are doing with Operation Pollinator is going a step beyond just adding some flowers to the grass. They are removing turf in areas that don’t need to be grass and replacing it with flowers for pollinators. That’s one approach, and it works in some places. Sometimes, though, you want a lawn to be a lawn , a place for play, picnics, and soccer pitches. What if a lawn can be all that and a place for pollinators too?”

She goes on to talk about incorporating more clover, and the thirty-seven bee species found on clover in grass in a Minneapolis study.

This simple addition to turf allows for the soccer pitches, while still providing some native bee habitat.

From the simple addition of clover into the lawn Embry moves on to the “making of a bee lawn.”

The transformation from golf-course turf to the perfect bee lawn has been the focus of many studies and creations that has met with varied success over the years.

As one researcher at the University of Minnesota explains: “the hardest part of getting a bee lawn into use isn’t developing the seed mix; it’s dealing with people’s vision of what a lawn should be…"

“If we didn’t have to worry about our neighbours, I think there would be a much more diverse look.”

Embry goes on to explain as a possible solution: “If the idea of flowers growing in the grassy lawn just isn’t quite achievable yet, there’s always the golf course route. Take out some of that lawn and convert it into a home and dining hall for bees. It’s all a matter of rethinking normal.”

Yes, Ms Embry, it certainly is.

Thanks for shedding some light on our native bees.

As an affiliate marketer with Amazon or other marketing companies, I earn money from qualifying purchases.

Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.

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