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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Go Native...

One sunny day when the canes were in full bloom, I wandered out to my black raspberry patch and was gratified to find eight different species of pollinators hard at work among the blossoms. I counted at least two species of bumble bees, two or three honeybees, a pair of solitary native bees, both different species, a wasp, and a California hairstreak butterfly.

Pollinators, their plight and diminishing numbers are much in the news these days, and while the honeybee and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) claim much of the spotlight, one should note that 80 per cent of pollinated crops in this country is effected by native bees and other pollinators. According to my hymenopterist friend Don Rolfs there are some 600 species of native bees in Washington State alone and at least 4,000 nationwide. When you think about those numbers, consider the vast potential for pollination the nation's horticulturists and agriculturists have in their (and our) favor. Recognizing the pending agricultural crisis, the Federal Government last year initiated the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honeybees and Other Pollinators, earmarking 82 million dollars for the program.The Strategy addresses three issues:
  • Cut the number of losses of overwintered honeybee colonies to 15 per cent (Note: many beekeepers lose all or a majority of their hives over my case five or six hives.)
  • Increase the population of the monarch butterfly to 225 million butterflies occupying approximately 15 acres in the overwintering grounds in Mexico.
  • Pollinator habitat Acreage: restore 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years.
I am of a mind that one can't have too many bees on one's property, especially if he or she gardens or has fruit trees. My honeybees have set the apple crop on our one slim acre to the heaviest in memory. But one doesn't have to tend honeybees to encourage and sustain populations of bees and other pollinators on his property. Perhaps the best examples are tube bees, communal bees (bees that nest in the same vicinity but carry out solitary reproductive cycles) that lay eggs and raise young in tubes.
The orchard mason bee is the most popular and well-known tube bee pollinator. To sustain working adult populations, mason bee cocoons can be harvested in fall, and reintroduced the following spring.

A few years back my brother Kevin gifted me with a creative and practical gift any bee lover would welcome: a nest box packed with six inch bamboo tubes of various diameters fashioned from bamboo canes he cut from his bamboo "forest" at Chipping Twig Farms in Orting.
Mason bees don't do well on our property. Masons only have a range of a hundred yards and nest close to food sources. Bee forage, I suspect, is slim here in early spring when the masons begin their cycle. (The urban bee lover should be gratified to know masons flourish in city neighborhoods because of the diversity of pollen and nectar sources in the urban landscape.) In July, however, native bees throng to the bamboo tube box. At midday half a dozen or more busy insects flit about the box, working the tubes.

Miner bees also flourish on our property. I first noticed little mounds of soil in the garden and alongside the driveway. At first glance I thought them to be worm castings, the byproduct of night crawlers. Closer observation proved the hillocks to be access tunnels dug by miner bees, mining subterranean homes for themselves. One species of miners is a dazzling iridescent green, a striking little beauty less than half an inch long.

Even if you are a rural resident with a mere postage stamp lawn, you can do much to encourage and sustain a pollinator population in your backyard. For one, make your property a bee-friendly habitat: choose and apply organic pest and weed controls where and whenever possible.

And don't forget the bumblebee, that hearty foul weather flier you will find buzzing about the spring blackberry and blueberry blossoms. They will brave light rain and drizzle when honeybees and small natives stay indoors warm and dry. This spring bumbles established a colony in one of our bird nesting boxes. (The Man Who Poked the Bumblebee Nest, 5/4/2016)

Houses for tube bees take up little room. Hang them on your fence, above an exterior entryway, from a backyard tree. Bee houses, tubes included, are readily available at garden shops (nice for gifts, too, especially if you have your own bamboo grove).

A container garden--vegetable and floral--creates a symbiosis between the gardener and his apis-type friends. Alliums, zinnias, certain varieties of dahlia are pollen and nectar rich (alliums are bee magnets). The Butterfly bush or buddleia is a pollinator's delicatessen. Vegetables: cucumbers, zucchini, squash and pumpkins are pollen producers and proliferaters.
As the squash blossoms unfold in the morning sun, honeybees furred and laden with pollen particles valiantly seek the necessary lift for the flight back to the hive. Native bees, I've discovered, are partial to tomatillos and on a late summer day nearly every blossom  in the garden has a striped native bee foraging on it. In today's pollinator-conscious world a brief search is certain to turn up lists of plantings bee lovers might select to create pollinator and butterfly gardens in their backyard and property.

So make your backyard bee-friendly. It's a good way to study bee behavior, a great opportunity to teach the younger generation about bees, allow them to observe nature's "busy bees" up close and personal, help children understand bees are the gardener's friends, not something just to swat at. And bee watching allows the gardener to take a welcome break once in awhile from those seemingly endless gardening chores.

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