Well, nature is cruel, and yesterday I witnessed a downy woodpecker pecking at the bee babies in my bee condo. (I had the camera with me because I’ve been trying with no luck to get a photo of a hummingbird who has been frequenting the yard for several days.) This morning, I checked the condo and found all of the mud-plug holes had been dug out — so either the bees all hatched at once or there is a very full woodpecker somewhere in my neighborhood. On the good news side, literally swarms of bees have been around my garden this summer, especially near the raspberry plants. I’m hoping to be very full of raspberries in another week or two.
Archive for the ‘Bees’ Category
A quick check of the bee condo the other day revealed it is nearly full. The smooth mud plugs indicate a leaf-cutter bee, the same kind I had last year. Orchard mason bees, the ones I hoped to attract, have a rough mud plug. Still, it’s clear from the action around my raspberries and flowers that the bees love my yard — and that makes me happy!
I like to plant flowers that attract wildlife to the yard: bees, birds, butterflies. Seeing butterflies dance on top of a coneflower or watching a bird as it works diligently to remove a seed from a dried sunflower increases my appreciation for nature and — not to sound too sappy — life itself. So, discovering a plant that attracts wildlife far beyond expectations is a great pleasure. That’s been my reaction to this ornamental onion (Allium spaerocephalon) that I planted last fall. I’ve got clumps of it in three areas of the front yard, and not only is it a particularly handsome plant, but it’s a positive bee magnet.
This bulb comes up in early to midsumer, long after tulips and daffodils are done. The tight flowerheads are shaped like an elongated sphere. They start out a bright green, but as the flowers open and spread, the color goes purple. Once it’s fully open, watch out — here come the bees! Yesterday, I found no fewer than a dozen bees buzzing around, gathering nectar from one of the clumps. Chives, another member of the allium family, is often suggested for attracting pollinators, but this allium seems to pull in many more bees than the chives I have. (Besides, chives are pretty invasive.) Allium spaerocephalon is recommended for rock gardens, borders, woodlands and the area between trees and shrubs. It makes a pretty cut flower, too, but why deprive the bees?
I had been lamenting that the bee condo I built last year would go unoccupied this year, but I was surprised yesterday to discover that a swarm of leafcutter bees (Megachile spp.) had moved in. Leafcutters are native bees in the western U.S. and important pollinators. They build nests in soft wood, looking for spots with narrow tunnels, similar to those in my bee condo. Like the orchard mason bees I had hoped to attract with the condo, leafcutters are solitary insects and not particularly aggressive. Their one flaw is the leaf cutting that earned them their common name. I haven’t noticed any plants that seem particularly harmed by the leaf-cutting — but I have noticed happily many bees buzzing around my flower and vegetable gardens recently.
Welcome back, bees!
The babies in my bee condo have flown the coop. I noticed the mud plugs that have been in place since August are broken open now and the tubes of the condo appear empty. If the bees hatched, they are entering a cold world. The other alternative is not so great either: Maybe a predator ate the bees. I don’t know, but am looking forward to continuing to observe the bee condo over the next few years. If anyone knows much about leaf-cutting bees, please comment on what may have happened.
As I noted a while back, critters have taken up residence in my bee condo. But they do not seem to be orchard mason bees. When an orchard mason bee moves into a condo like this, the signs are a rough mud plug in one of the holes. The bees use the holes to protect their offspring and fill the holes with baby bee food before plugging it up for safe keeping.
I have mud plugs, finally, but they are not rough. They are smooth, which I originally thought was a wasp, but the holes also include lots of cut up grass, which is not the usual m.o. for orchard mason bees. I did manage to catch a photo of one of the occupants leaving the condo the other day. He is longer than a bumble bee, also thinner, with a pronounced waist. Unlike the orchard mason bees, which are usually bluish, this bee was black and yellow.
Having long ago reached the limits of my knowledge of insects, I sent the photos above to David Zlesak, an extension educator at the University of Minnesota, editor of the U’s Yard and Garden News, and an occasional contributor to Northern Gardener. David is not a bee guy, but he knows an insect guy–Jeff Hahn–who checked out my photos and determined that it’s probably a leaf-cutting bee living in the bee condo. Leaf-cutters are solitary insects and effective pollinators. Their only negative is the leaf-cutting. I do have quite a few plants showing holes, especially one rose, further confirming the leaf-cutter theory. As Hahn noted, “They probably like your house just fine.”
Unlike so many condos for people, I am hoping my just completed condo project for orchard mason bees will soon be abuzz with activity. I’ve been meaning to build one of these since I read an article in Fine Gardening about raising raspberries and the importance of orchard mason bees as pollinators.
Last fall, we had an article in Northern Gardener on the honeybee crisis. Honeybees, which are responsible for much of the pollination of commercial crops such as almonds, have been dying off in large numbers. Marla Spivak of the U of M is a bee expert, and she believes several factors may be causing the die-off, including mites or diseases and changes in habitat, such as prairies becoming residential areas and large monoculture crops (corn). If you are interested in honeybees or just want to see pictures of people with bee-beards, please check out the U’s great Bee Lab web site.
Well, no matter what the situation with honeybees, gardeners need bees of all types for pollination. Orchard mason bees are perfect bee neighbors. They are not social bees–each little bee wants her own condo. They are very gentle and pollinate like crazy. To build the house, you need a 4-by-4 block of wood of any length (mine is about a foot) with an angle cut on one edge. You also need a spare piece of wood or a cedar shingle for the roof, and another piece of wood to mount the house on. If you are lucky and have a friend with lots of spare lumber and a rotating arm power saw, the job is a snap. (Thanks, Steve!)
Once you have the wood, you drill holes 5/16th of an inch in diameter about 3 inches into the wood. Drill as many holes as you want, but there should be about 3/4 of an inch center to center between the holes. I got 28 on my block. Then, attach the roof to the block, and the block to the mounting piece and you are ready to hang your bee house. The bees like it facing south, so I mounted mine on one of the posts of my pergola. The bees use the holes in the house for nesting. They love pollen from apples and raspberries and I have both very close to the bee house. With any luck, the bees will help produce a good crop of raspberries, apples, veggies, flowers, and more bees this summer.