The bees knees

Not exactly sure what that headline means, but my dad always used the phrase in reference to things he likes. And I like bees.

They are in trouble and you should care.

Bees are in trouble

Bumblebee on Beebalm (Mondara)

Beekeepers in Western countries have been reporting declines the number of bees for many years. In early 2007, abnormally high die-offs (in many cases 70% of hives) of European honey bee colonies occurred in North America.

Bee species throughout the world including native bee species are endangered. There is some question if some species are already gone, recently made extinct. This decline in bee populations is slowly progressing across the United States. Wisconsin has been affected.

Bees are dying off for many reasons – parasites and mites, loss of native plant habitat, native vegetation and prairies with preferred flowering plants, pesticides, pathogens and lack of biological diversity.

Bees are important

Gardeners, farmers, and orchardists need bees to pollinate their crops. One-third of the total U.S. diet is derived from insect-pollinated plants. If the people throughout the world are going to be able to continue to produce enough food for ever-increasing populations, the continued existence of native bee species is critical.

The European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is a flying workhorse. Managed hives of honey bees are carted around the country to pollinate berries, vegetables, fruit trees, flowers and other agricultural crops worth roughly $20 billion annually in North America, according to The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. This import was named the state insect in Wisconsin in 1977, even though it’s a non-native species.

The bees help more than our crops. Birds and other wildlife depend on these natural pollinators both as a source of food and for enabling the fertilization of plants they rely on for fruit, seed, cover and sustenance.

Let me tell you more about bees

Honey bees represent only a small fraction of the approximately 20,000 known species of bees. There are nearly 4,000 other wild bee species are native to North America and 500 of those are found in Wisconsin.

For most people when they think about bees, they envision the familiar image of a honeybee with yellow and black stripes. Native bees come in many colors and sizes. Some are less than ¼-inch long while others like the bumblebee are as big as one-inch long. Some native pollinators might even be mistaken for a common housefly, having a black or metallic green and blue color.

About 70 percent of native bees live in underground nests. Many ground nesting bees have an extremely short lifecycle lasting only a few weeks and are fairly solitary. While most bees are not particularly choosy about the flowers they collect pollen and nectar from, some native species of bees are extremely choosy, only collecting pollen from a single plant species, and have lifecycles that are synchronized with the blooming period of that plant species.

Wasps and hornets get bad press for a reason. These aggressive, uninvited guests at picnics, ballgames and family gatherings are not bees, nor are they significant pollinators. Wasps are relatively hairless with pointed abdomens. These ill-tempered cousins readily sting people. True bees are usually hairy, fairly docile and don’t sting unless they are wildly flailed at, stepped on or forced to defend their nest. Bees like flower nectar while wasps and hornets eat overripe fruit, sugary drinks, other insects and in some cases meat. My grandpa used to catch bumblebees with his bare hands to show us how gentle they were.

What can you do to help?

Plant to attract bees by planning a diversity of plants that flower all season, use local native plants, choose several colors of flowers of differing heights, plant clusters or clumps of flowers, include flowers of different shapes.

There are some plants that attract bees and certain pesticides that are particularly toxic to bees. Talk to experienced gardeners such as the UW-Extension’s Master Gardeners, local chapters of The Wild Ones, and the Native Plant Society members about what you can do to protect and encourage bees.

Encourage a variety of nesting sites. Bees will adapt to manmade structures or sites, so you might consider building a bee habitat such as:

  • Nesting blocks – drill 3/8-inch holes about 3-4 inches deep in a 4×4 foot block of wood or dry tree stump to make an attractive bee condo. Mount on a tree the way you would a bird house.
  • Tube bundles – Reeds and other plants have naturally hollow stems that make good nesting tubes for tunnel-nesting bees. Tie together 15-20 stems of six-inch length (with one end sealted at a natural node). Slide these into a PVC pipe or other container that will keep them secure (won’t shake in the wind), horizontal and dry.
  • Ground nests – Clear the vegetation from a small south-facing area that drains well. Create small patches of different heights, pitches and locations to attract different bee species.
  • And of course, you can purchase honey bee and bumble bee nests. I easily found lots of attractive options online.

Research sources and credits


About Kary Beck

Mother and wife, gardener, wine enthusiast, avid online bargain hunter, and owner of two black-and-tan cocker spaniels.
This entry was posted in Insects, bugs & other pests. Bookmark the permalink.

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