When most people think about bees, they think about large furry bumblebees or hives of honeybees. However, the most common types of wild bee are solitary bees. They do not live in colonies but rather by themselves in the ground or in wood cavities, depending on the species. In fact, more than 130 bee species found in the Northeast are wood-nesters. They nest within the soft pithy centers of old twigs, in beetle tunnels in dead trees or even in the holes in driftwood made by shipworms. One woman had wood-nesting bees living in her wind chimes! Unfortunately, intensively managed landscapes often lack the tree snags, plants and the small cavities these native bees need.
Native bees pollinate more efficiently and completely than honeybees and they are fun to watch. As an added bonus, solitary bees are gentle by nature and rarely sting. They do not have a colony to protect. In fact, I’ve kept mason bees for years and only was stung this year after I clenched one tightly in my fist: The sting felt like a mosquito bite.
Native bees pollinate more efficiently and completely than honeybees and they are fun to watch.
Wood-nesting pollinators, like masons, leafcutters and wool carders, tend to stay put when they have a place to live, and they often forage on flowers less than 200 yards from their homes. Since flowers must be pollinated to produce fruits and vegetables, encouraging solitary bees is a great idea for anyone with fruit trees, berry bushes and gardens. Here are a few management options:
- Retain dead or dying trees and branches: Wood-boring beetle larvae and hungry woodpeckers often fill dead trunks and limbs with narrow tunnels that wood-nesters will eventually occupy.
- Plant shrubs or other plants with pithy stems: Every year cut back some of the growth to expose the pithy interior of the stem. Raspberries, blackberries, elderberry, sumac and dogwood are good examples.
- Put up bee bundles: Solitary wood-nesting bees will use any structure that mimics holes in wood or the center of pithy stems, so tie a few bee bundles around your yard. Bee bundles have been used by native bee enthusiasts for years and are perfect for someone who doesn’t have time for the further complexities of intensively rearing native bees (called “bee ranching”). Sylvester Manor Educational Farm on Shelter Island has a bunch of bee bundles installed throughout their acreage, and I use them in gardens and natural settings across the North Fork.
Bee bundles look great on a fence or limb of a tree about three to six feet from the ground. They should be tied firmly in a horizontal position so they don’t shake in the wind. Position the openings facing east/southeast to encourage the bees living in the bundle to forage earlier in the day, which will increase the total hours they pollinate. Since bee nests may become popular with bee enemies like chalkbrood and pollen mites, change out the bundles every few years to ensure success.
I’ve seen “bee hotels” available for sale at garden centers and it’s important to keep the following in mind:
- A majority of the bee hotels are so large they artificially concentrate wood-nesting bees at above natural densities. This may increase the incidence of disease, parasites and predators.
- Bee hotels made from molded plastic or plastic straws do not provide the same moisture balance found in nature. Increased moisture retention encourages mold to grow and baby bees will die.
- Wide, windy open-ended tunnels are not liked by solitary bees and neither are bee hotels that swing in the wind.
- Pest and disease problems can be reduced by cleaning the tunnels or replacing the entire structure every few years.
With so many species of solitary bees in North America, chances are good that you can attract them to your yard. Good luck!