Let's talk about native bees and why we need them
Garden of Eatin', Insects & Worms

Let’s Talk About Native Bees and Why We Need Them

When we talk about saving the bees, we often think of honeybees, hives, and how we can attract these pollinators to our gardens. We read about neonicotinoids and their devastating effects on honeybees, we petition garden centers to stop selling insecticide-laced “bee-friendly” plants, we see Facebook memes with pictures of half-empty store shelves and captions that warn, “This is what your supermarket will look like in a world without bees.”

And while all of that should definitely influence our landscaping and gardening decisions, we sometimes forget the other bees out there that fly solo and produce no honey, yet are just as important to our food system.

Gentle solitary bees with cocoons

There are over 4,000 species of bees in North America (of which honeybees are a tiny fraction) and they pollinate one-third of our food supply, as well as one-third of the feed for our meat supply (such as cattle).

The troubled honeybee is actually European in origin and was brought here by early settlers. Agriculture in America relies heavily on European honeybees to pollinate important crops like almonds. In fact, millions of hives are shipped hundreds or thousands of miles to the Central Valley in California every year during almond pollination season. With this crucial resource endangered, we need to diversify the bees we depend on because there are many other bees capable of pollinating our crops.

That’s where native bees come in. Unlike honeybees, native bees are gentle, solitary in nature, and require no hive. They include mason bees, leafcutter bees, and bumblebees, and while most of us are familiar with the mild-mannered bumble, many have never heard of masons or leafcutters and their amazing ability to pollinate.

How amazing? It takes only 1 native bee to pollinate 12 pounds of cherries versus 60 honeybees to do the same job!

The reason lies in each bee’s effectiveness in spreading pollen. Whereas honeybees are great pollen gatherers (the pollen is sticky and carried on their back legs, with little pollen falling off as they return to their hive), native bees carry dry pollen all over their bodies that fall off as they buzz from flower to flower. This inefficiency at gathering pollen is the key to the native bee’s success in pollinating a remarkable number of plants in a short amount of time.

Native bees are also less sensitive to weather and start pollinating earlier in the morning and later into the evening than their honeybee cousins. Knowing all this, it only makes sense that we welcome native bees into our gardens (and help increase their populations) by giving them a variety of nectar sources to feed on.

We can take it one step further and provide a safe habitat for these hardworking bees as well. While natives don’t need a hive, they do nest in small, protected cavities where they end up laying their eggs.

Native bee houses are simple structures; essentially they’re a group of hollow tubes placed under the cover of an eave or awning.

Mason bee house

You may have even seen DIY native bee houses that consist of nothing more than blocks of wood with holes drilled into them. And while some shelter is better than none at all, these DIY structures eventually become native bee cemeteries as pests take over the holes and there’s no way to clean or inspect them.

I was recently introduced to Crown Bees at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show. Not only was I immediately drawn to their line of native bee houses and accessories, but founder Dave Hunter’s passion for native bees is palpable and he offered to send me their kits to try out. I was intrigued!

A quick browse on the Crown Bees site turns up extensive tutorials and documentation on native bees, how to care for them, how to create a habitat for them, and answers to every question you could possibly come up with. I was excited to start before my native bee kit ever arrived in the mail!

If you’ve never kept native bees before, the kits are the way to go. They include everything you need to set up a safe and attractive native bee house, including the bees.

Yes, they ship bees in the mail — and while I was surprised to hear the little guys buzzing around before I opened my box, I learned that it can happen if the temperatures are just right for them to wake up while still en route.

Mason bees and cocoons

Native bees and cocoons

Native bees from Crown Bees are shipped in their cocoon stage. Depending on the time of year and your particular climate, you’ll receive either spring mason bees or summer leafcutter bees. (These particular ones are mason bees.)

Solitary bee cocoons

The mason bees come in a little cardboard box with a cold pack, and by the time they arrive at your door, some may have started to crawl out of their cocoons already. Females are larger than males and you can see the difference here in their cocoons.

Female and male mason bee cocoons

Native bee cocoons

Mason bee emerging from cocoon

Solitary bee emerging from cocoon

Native bee emerging from cocoon

Newly emerged native bee

Empty cocoon

The males emerge first and if you didn’t know any better, you’d think they were house flies. Native bees are small with hairy black bodies. They’re so gentle that they’ll walk on you without so much as a buzz. You can be close to them without worry of being stung, and in the rare case that you do get stung (usually by accident), it’s fairly innocuous — more like a mosquito bite than a honeybee sting.

Solitary bee

Gentle native bee

I received the Complete Raindrop Kit which included a beautiful wooden teardrop-shaped house, natural lake bed reeds, bee cocoons, and some accessories.

Raindrop native bee house kit

Natural reeds in a native bee house

Native bee house accessories

Lake bed reeds are ideal nesting tubes for native bees. They’re preferred over tearable paper tubes, and they’re much easier to maintain than rigid bamboo reeds. They come in an assortment of hole diameters for all the different bees that might visit your garden. Think of them as hotel rooms in your bee hotel.

Natural lake bed reeds

To create the uneven, irregular environment that native bees prefer, I added a few sticks of varying lengths and widths. The sticks are placed with the reeds to help the female bees locate their nesting holes.

Assorted sticks

When arranging the reeds inside the bee house, I pulled a few of them out at random, just slightly, so they aren’t fully flush. They act as a marker so that the bee will come along and think, Oh, there’s my room next to the large overhung twig.

Lake bed reeds and sticks

Hanging the bee house takes some consideration. It should be under an eave, protected from rain and wind, and positioned in a spot that soaks up the warmth of the morning sun (but stays sheltered from harsh afternoon sun in hotter climates). Ideally it should also be at eye level so you can keep tabs on the bee activity.

Native bees don’t like to be disturbed so once their bee house is mounted, it should not be moved until the end of the native bee season in autumn.

Mount the native bee house under an eave

Hanging a native bee house

Raindrop native bee house

Raindrop bee house

To compare the different types of native bee houses, I also hung a BeeHut in another part of the yard. This simple plastic bee house (which looks like PVC pipe) comes with a reusable wood tray. The tray is actually five slim trays stacked on top of each other, creating nesting holes for mason bees.

BeeHut house with wooden trays

Reusable wooden trays

In the fall, you can remove the black adhesive tape and disassemble the trays to harvest the cocoons and clean the cavities as needed. (Harvesting just means you bring the cocoons inside for winter and store them in the fridge to protect them from parasites; the same goes for cocoons you eventually harvest from reeds.)

We painted the BeeHut (with water-based non-toxic paint) so it would blend in better with our house.

BeeHut house

Once the bee houses are hung, there’s not much left to do. It’s like hanging a bird feeder — only occasional maintenance is needed. Just keep an eye on the nests to ensure birds, squirrels, and other critters aren’t making a meal out of your native bees (a screen placed over the holes should help with that problem). Enjoy watching the bees move in and out of their bee house all season long and seeing your melon crop flourish!

Crown Bees has a number of bee houses and accessories to get you started on “keeping” these gentle solitary bees. I’m partial to the Raindrop house as I think it’s a beautiful addition to the garden, but they carry a variety of structures to suit every style.

(As an aside, please avoid the $20 made-in-China knockoff with woven bamboo sides. Yes, it looks cute, but it will last as long as $20 lasts you and does not come from a company that actually cares about native bees and your success with them. Ethically, I feel better supporting a company like Crown Bees in this regard.)

I also recommend signing up for their Bee-Mail, which sends you email reminders on what to do and when to do it throughout the year. Very helpful as I venture into this new territory of native bees!

This post is brought to you by Crown Bees. Thank you for supporting the sponsors that support Garden Betty.

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  • I was on the Dutch Radio 1 on Monday night together with Henk Tennekes, a Dutch researcher who wrote the book “Disaster in the Making” (http://www.disasterinthemaking.com/) about the effects of widely used insecticides on beneficial insects and birds. I was there to give tips on organic gardening and how to attract beneficial insects into your garden. One of the tips I gave was not to cut down plants in fall but leave them (especially those with hollow stems) and the host was like “But what if you want your yard to look neat?”. I guess these pretty bee houses are a good solution 😉 But I still think that a ban on the insecticides is more important than worrying about nectar and habitat for the bees.

    • The solution should come from both sides, commercial (regulations on insecticides) and residential (increased awareness on providing nectar and habitat). Because unfortunately, here in America we still value our lawns and we let dirt lots lay fallow.

      • You’re right, of course. I think my perception is a bit colored by my experience – here in the Netherlands most people do have flowering plants in their gardens. I even talked to a bee keeper from our part of the city (he keeps the bees in his backyard) and he says that the honey is very good because of the wide variety of forage plants.
        I have also recently advised on the (edible) planting in a park in the middle of the city of Deventer where the benches already had holes drilled on the down side for masonry bees. So it seems that many people are doing their part, now we need the government to take action – there will be a vote on the ban of neonicotinoids shortly.

      • Lisa Robinson

        Actually dirt lots might be filled with native bee homes–many live in holes in the soil.

        • Good point!

          • Lisa Robinson

            Besides putting up nesting tubes, toss some native flower seeds into lots to help out leaf cutter bees and the ones that built nests in dirt–or add some local native flowers to a corner of your garden… It helps “your” bees best to grow the flowers from “your” area–the kinds that they co-evolved with.

  • This is really cool! We tried honeybees… got 2 hives and put them next to a huge orchard (we live in the central valley so there was no shortage of things for them to eat) but they vanished in less than a year and we lost them to what we assume was colony collapse. We might need to try one of these little bee houses! We liked the idea of honey, but also LOVED the idea of our garden being pollinated! I can’t wait to hear how yours fare!

    • We have a jungle of beneficial plants all over our property, so we’re seeing several types of bees every day (honey, bumble, and mason, from what I can gather). A volunteer squash started growing in our mulch pile in February and already has a 10-foot long vine filled with baby squash!

  • Peggy Zortman

    Amazing! I have seen those tear drop nests but had no idea what it was about. Wonderful information!

  • Rachel

    I’ve been really interested in helping out the local bee population. This article very helpful!

    • This is one of the easiest ways to help the bees. Good luck with whatever you decide to do!

      • Dawda Saye

        Can I have bees on the wall of my house, do they not. Attacking guest or visitors

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