Happy Pollinator Week. It’s a good time to think about bee habitat and what you can do to create and protect other pollinators. June 19-25, 2017, marks a committed effort that began a decade ago with unanimous approval by the U.S. Senate to designate a week in June to pollinator awareness. National Pollinator Week has been adopted by all 50 states to bring attention to the critical role pollinators play and their vulnerability to environmental stresses. Moving beyond awareness into action has taken the form of Pollinator Protection Plans in states including Kentucky, in addition to Monarch Waystation gardens numbering more than 15,000 and pollinator education events across the nation.
The efforts to support pollinators must be on a heroic scale to match the multitude of threats they face. Irresponsible pesticide use, loss of habitat, increase in parasites and extreme weather events are a few of the complex challenges for butterflies, birds, bees, beetles, flies and wasps that partner with plants to make fruit. For example, there are more than 4,000 species of native bees, so understanding their specific needs and life cycles is beyond the scope of the average hobby farmer.
However, simple ways to help some of these forgotten friends are as easy as changing your perspective on waste. If your garden or farm is not pristine, then chances are good that you already have great materials for hosting native bees in various stages of their life cycles. Here are some unexpected habitats that keep native bees alive with very little effort.
1. Bare Dirt
Sandy soil is a good bee habitat, specifically for squash or gourd bees. Digger bees like it too, but they’ll also make space in compacted soil or embankments. A dripping faucet that makes a mud puddle provides an important home-building material for certain bees (and a nice spot for butterflies to drink too).
2. Wilted Flowers
Squash and gourd bees like to live right in the loose soil where cucurbits such as pumpkins grow well. Because squash flowers are usually open for a brief time in the cool morning, that’s when you’ll see these bees at work, before honeybees are out and about. When the sun gets higher in the sky, and the squash flowers appear to wilt, male squash bees will often sleep inside the closed flowers.
3. Old Mouse Nest
Bumblebees, which can withstand colder temperatures than honeybees, might even be out foraging in the rain. Random, human-made cavities are a favorite resting spot for these busy pollinators. Before cleaning up a rodent nest, if it’s not a health or safety concern, consider leaving it for bumblebees to use. A human-made alternative is an upside-down flower pot with plenty of nesting material inside.
4. Soft, Dead Wood
This is great bee habitat for large carpenter bees, who would rather drill their homes into soft scraps of wood than your barn or home. They don’t care for painted or finished wood, either. Female carpenter bees have strong jaws, and they use them to chew holes and widen tunnel systems where they can build their nests. Other naturally occurring holes in dead wood provide tiny homes for other bees too. For example, the tunnels made by wood-boring beetles are also used by leafcutter bees (shown in the topmost photo), pollinators that forage all day long under the hot summer sun.
5. Dry, Hollow Or Pithy Stems
Not to be confused with carpenter bees, mason bees don’t excavate their own cavities. Leafcutter bees and mason bees use readily available materials such as grasses, leaf fragments, pollen and saliva to adapt natural chambers inside dry stems to their liking. Some examples of good stems for bee habitat, which could be left standing or cut and stacked out of the way, include cup plant, gumweed, various sunflowers, reed, bamboo, teasel, joe pye weed and poke weed.
While heaps of trash and debris do not make a pleasant gardening environment, consider letting some things slide, in moderate and purposeful quantities: a bare patch of dirt here, a few rotting stumps there, a cracked flower pot or two. Aesthetics aside, remember that in the wild, nature recycles everything, and everything has a purpose, including native bee habitat. When you’re ready to move from passive to active in your personal pollinator protection plan, you can plant native plants to attract pollinators by using a planting guide for your eco-region, and you can try crafting homes for pollinators.