Everyone knows about bees: They live in hives, they drink nectar and collect pollen, and they make honey. What would you say if I told you that was only one type of bee?
Out of the twenty thousand species of bees known to exist, and the four thousand of these known to be native to the United States, not one species makes honey—or lives in hives. Apis mellifera, which we all know as the honey bee, is perhaps the best known and most recognizable bee species, yet it is not native to the United States.
In fact, most species of bees, around 90%, are not even social animals. That is, they don’t live in colonies at all, but are instead solitary. (Feel free to drop that factoid on the next relative who harasses you about when you’re getting married already. I’m just living that bee life, Aunt Brenda!) And although honey bees get all the major press, habitat loss is a crisis facing our native bee species—which are also super important for our pollination needs! In fact, habitat loss is a way bigger issue for native bees than for honey bees, which are largely managed by beekeepers on private property.
But there is, always, something you can do to help. First, let’s talk about how our native bee species do live.
Bumblebees tend to be round, plump, and very fuzzy looking, due to the long hairs that cover their bodies. These bees nest mainly underground in abandoned rodent burrows, but can also be found above ground in tall grasses or in holes in tree trunks. Bumblebees live in small social groups and derive sustenance from nectar, which adult bees bring back to their nest to feed the young. A bumblebee hive’s nest only survives one season, and in the spring when a queen hatches, she goes in search of a good spot to make a new nest.
Mason bees are solitary, and derive their name from the “masonry” materials, such as mud, they use to help construct their nests. These bees nest in any of a number of small holes or cracks in wood or stone, as well as occasionally in hollow twigs or plant stems and the abandoned nests of wood-boring insects. After mating, a female mason bee selects a nesting site and collects pollen and nectar to make a bed upon which to lay her egg. Once her first egg is laid, she creates a wall of mud and begins the process over again, until she has filled the nest with a row of cells in which her eggs are laid. She will seal the hole of her nest with more mud and, if possible, seek another nest to lay more eggs. Inside these cells, the larvae will consume the pollen and nectar they hatched upon, then make a cocoon in which they will pupate until the spring (or, in the case of some mason bees, the following spring!).
Carpenter bees are generally (but not always) solitary, and were named due to their habit of nesting in wood (or bamboo, or similar hard plant materials). To bore holes in their intended nesting spots, these bees vibrate their entire bodies while rubbing their mandibles (jaws) against the surface of the wood. Like mason bees, carpenter bees create individual cells for their eggs, which they also lay on a bed of pollen and nectar for their future larvae’s nourishment. They reuse some of the wood shavings to help create walls between their nest’s cells.
Leafcutter bees are solitary and nest in much the same way as mason bees, choosing hollow twigs or other natural fissures for their nests. Unlike mason bees, leafcutter bees line their nests with small circles cut neatly out of leaves. Some related species use instead a dry plant resin.
Sweat bees can be solitary or social—although the social species of sweat bees have a different and less complex form of hierarchy compared to honey bees. Most sweat bees nest in the ground, creating waterproof cells in which to lay their eggs on a bed of pollen.
Digger bees are solitary—although individual bees may choose to nest near each other in large groups—and primarily nest in the ground. They also construct waterproof cells for their eggs, but unlike other bee species these larvae do not spin cocoons.
Mining or miner bees, also known as chimney bees, are solitary bees that prefer to nest in the ground, especially in well-draining clay soils. Like many of the other bee species they create individual waterproof cells for their eggs and provide them with a bed of pollen to nourish them as they group. Like digger bees, mining bees may nest in large groups in the same area, but with each bee constructing their own individual nest.
Now that you understand the habitat needs of the native bee species in your area, you’re probably already thinking of ways you can help—or at least identifying the problems your native bees might face. Here are some ideas for how you can help protect native bee habitats:
Embrace decay. Frankly, we could all use a little more grace in our lives for aging, fragility, and death. In a culture so obsessed with youth and vitality, many of us forget that the declining half of the life cycle is just as important. Without death and decay, there would be no sustenance for new life to begin. So think twice before immediately consigning all your dead plant material to the yard waste bin. Dead trees and tree trunks, as well as dried-out raspberry canes or piles of leaves and sticks, all make excellent homes for a number of our native bees. When you prune back your plants in the fall and winter, don’t be quite so aggressive—leave something behind for the bees. Keep some of the twigs and leaves back to make a pile in a corner of your yard for bees that might like a protected place like that to build their nests. And, if it’s a little less picture-perfect, remind yourself that those dead plants are serving their purpose. It’s a beautiful thing.
Embrace imperfection. Speaking of things we could use grace for in our lives, can we talk about how so many of us are constantly striving for perfection? In our looks, in our work, in our brain function, and, often, in our yards. But what we think of as “perfect,” that is, something well manicured and free of all signs of decay, is simply not natural. What’s really perfect is when a patch of land is in harmony, with dead leaves composting naturally to fertilize the soil and insects of all kinds going about their insect business with plenty of food and shelter to sustain them. So forget that tinted bark, the precise lines of gravel. Use thin mulching materials like compost or shredded leaves, which allow nesting bees to burrow into and beneath them. And don’t mow or till so often—or at all, if you can tolerate that. Tilling in particular can be injurious to ground nesting bees, which require a stable underground environment to grow in.
Embrace the native, and the natural. We’ve said it before, and we’ll probably say it again: NATIVE PLANTS ROCK. Seriously, though, native plants will provide the best food and habitat for your native bees. After all, they evolved together! This is a good time to remind you to look beyond flowering plants. Sure, flowers are gorgeous and native grasses may seem “boring” to you. But native grasses genuinely provide some of the best habitat for native animals, and there is a beauty in that, too. Become familiar with your native grasses, and actively look for the beauty in them. Take a moment to appreciate the color and texture of the stalks, the differences between them. When is the last time you really looked at a blade of grass? And, please, stop using pesticides in your garden. Insects are not only completely normal, but actually desirable in a functional ecosystem. The healthiest gardens will have insects of all kinds, and if they become overly destructive, there are non-chemical ways to help manage your pest issues.
Finally, you may have seen commercial bee hotels or articles on how to build your own. You can absolutely buy or build one to encourage solitary nesting bees to make their homes near yours—including spraying special bee pheromones to let native bees in your neighborhood know to come on over. These types of artificial solutions do require a little maintenance, however, as repeated use of the same nests can encourage growth of fungus or mites that will damage your bees. If your bee hotel uses paper straws, bamboo, or other hollow plant stalks, you can simply discard (or compost!) and replace them each year. If your bee hotel features holes drilled into wood blocks, you can clean out the holes with a pipe cleaner or compressed air, and replace the wood blocks after a few years of use. Just be sure the bees have hatched before cleaning!