To bee or not to bee….

Guest author:  Billy Hutson

From apples and blueberries to zucchini, from apricots and broccoli to watermelons, without bees, one-third of the fruits and vegetables would disappear from our grocery stores.

Which vegetables depend on bees, which can be wind-pollinated, and which can produce without a poliinator's help?  (Courtesy of Paula Richads, with thanks to the HEB in Burnet.)
Do you know which vegetables and fruits depend on bees, which can be wind-pollinated, and which can produce without a poliinator’s help? For answer, check out the WIKI link.  (Courtesy of Paula Richards, with thanks to the HEB in Burnet.)

Birds and other creatures also depend on the fruits produced from bee-pollinated flowers, such as the berries from the possumhaw holly and even native grasses and prickly pear fruit.   Worldwide, it’s estimated that 50-80% of the food that humans or our livestock (cattle, pigs, etc.)  consume is dependent on bees.

Honey bee out for an afternoon snack. (Courtesy of Paula Richards)
Honey bee out for an afternoon snack.
(Courtesy of Paula Richards)

Unfortunately, the honey bee population is in trouble, which means we are in trouble.  Over the last ten years, honey bee colonies and hives have collapsed at a rate of 20-36% per year.

With this downturn in honey bee populations,  we are relying more on the native variety of pollinators.  Ever wonder about the many insects that hover in and around your flowering plants?   Well there’s a whole plethora of honey bees, flies, multiple native bee varieties, butterflies, and wasps.

A tasty snack. (Courtesy of Paula Richards)
Native pollinator:  Swallowtail butterfly sipping nectar from a verbena wildflower.
(Courtesy of Paula Richards)

While it is harder to measure the actual loss of native bees since the majority are solitary nesters, we can see the results of their losses with the decline of flowering and fruit-bearing plant species.   Examples include fewer berries on the possumhaw holly branches, less fruit on the Texas persimmons and prickly pears, and even fewer seeds on the grasses and forbs across the meadows.

Prickly pear blossoms depend on pollinators to produce fruit, which provides food for many animals. (Courtesy of Paula Richards)
Prickly pear cactus blossoms depend on pollinators to produce fruit, which provides food for many animals.  (Courtesy of Paula Richards)

The good news is that we can do something about it.  We can help them by providing a healthy habitat and increasing their chance of survival and thriving.

First of all, we can stop using systemic pesticides that are absorbed by the plant through sprays, or designed into the seed itself through genetic engineering (think GMOs).  These  make the whole plant toxic to insects, including the blooms and nectar  (These types of pesticides are typically made from nicotine-like chemicals, and we all know how bad that stuff is.)   This is also why organic farms are using heirloom seeds, that have not been modified, and rely on nature’s pest controls like ladybugs and healthy soils.

Native bee from Big Thicket National Preserve in TX (Courtesy of Sam Droege & USGS, via creative commons licensing) For more cool photos, check out their bee albums.
Native bee from Big Thicket National Preserve in TX (Courtesy of Sam Droege & USGS. used under creative commons licensing) For more seriously cool photo close-ups of bees from around the world, check out the USGS’ bee albums.

Secondly, we can plant native flowering plants and provide water for their consumption.  We’re doing that at the nature center with our monarch waystation and butterfly nursery demonstration garden.   Bee favorites include lantana, rosemary, all the wildflowers such as aster, anemones, bluebonnets, indian paintbrush, blanket flowers, as well as butterfly bush and butterfly weed, bee balm, salvia, yarrow, cactus blooms, flowering shrubs and trees such as Texas sage, Mexican buckeye, kidney wood, and escarpment cherry.

Close up of orchid bee -- not all bees are the same.
Close up of orchid bee from Guyana — not all bees are the same. (Courtesy of Sam Droege & USGS, via creative commons licensing) For more seriously cool photo close-ups, check out the USGS’ bee albums.

The third and most creative is to create bee houses.  Most of our native bees are solitary.  Most nest in the ground but many nest in holes where they lay their eggs in a food supply to hatch on their own.  We built a number of these bee houses using some very simple tools and recycled materials, and have installed them around the nature center.

The first style is a block of untreated wood with many drilled holes for their use.   Use another wood scrap to provide an overhang to shield the entry from the rain.  (You can often find old logs or even free scrap wood from the local home improvement store.  Make sure it is untreated.)

Bee box in winter. (Courtesy of Billy Huston)
Native bee box in winter.  (Courtesy of Billy Huston)

Another option is to recycle a small open structure that will hold tubes for their nesting, or just bundle the tubes together with wire.  For the tubes, we gathered bamboo and cut lengths from just beyond the node which provides a seal at one end.   (Do NOT use plastic straws as they do not wick away moisture.)  Bee houses can be quite creative and will add a piece of art to your garden.

Using bamboo to create homes for native bees. (Courtesy of Paula Richards)
Using bamboo to create homes for native bees.  (Courtesy of Paula Richards)

We installed the native bee boxes in full sun, with the entrance facing either south or south-east, and at least three feet off the ground with clear, easy access to the openings.  When you visit the nature center, be sure to check out these neat bee apartment complexes and take home ideas for your backyard.

UHLNC members creating native bee habitat.  Look for them the next time you visit the nature center. (Courtesy of Alice Rheaume)
UHLNC members creating native bee habitat, for the nature center and for their own backyards.  (Courtesy of Alice Rheaume)

You can get lots of ideas and dimensions by googling how to build native bee houses.   I particularly liked these sites:  Resonating Bodies  out of Toronto; if you want to get fancy, there is Arups insect hotel from London; and for the serious woodworking crowd, foxleas has bee_house designs.

For more information:
Texas Bee Watchers (building nest boxes)
Texas Native Bees Co-op (ground-nesting, solitary bees)
Texas Bumblebees (sponsored by TPWD)
The Pollinator Partnership (committed to supporting our native pollinators)
Native Bees in Texas (sponsored by Native Plant Society of Texas)

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