Gardening for the Native Bees: 4 Easy Tips For Making Your Garden Solitary Bee Friendly

by Sam DollA cavity-nesting native bee.

There are nearly 4,000 species of native bees in the United States alone! With the exception of bumblebees, nearly every native bee species in North America are solitary. They come in a variety of shapes in sizes, from enormous carpenter bees to the tiny Perdita genus.

If you want to learn more about bumblebees, check out our blog about how you can make your garden bumblebee friendly!

Unlike European honeybees or bumblebees, solitary bees are stingless, do not have a queen, live in a colony, or make honey and wax. Instead, female solitary bees build tunnels to use as nests, where they lay their eggs in a series of chambers packed with a pollen and nectar “paste” for their young to munch on when they hatch. Since males will hatch and emerge from the nest first, the mamma bee will lay the females in the deepest portion of the nest and males in the front.

Around 70% of solitary bees are known as “mining bees” because they tunnel underground to build their nests. The other 30% of bees are cavity-nesting bees and will nest in anything from hollow or pithy stems to dead wood, or even abandoned snail shells!

Native bees are incredibly important pollinators. Unlike honeybees, which carry pollen in a “pollen pouch” on their legs, native bees are a bit less tidy, covering their whole bodies in pollen to carry it home. This messiness means they lose much more pollen as they go flower to flower and it actually makes them much more efficient pollinators. Some plants actually need native bees to be pollinated at all! Squash and gourds and any other members of the Cucurbita genus all rely on very specialized Squash Bees!

For more on the Squash Bees, check out our Blog on the topic!

These bees are pretty neat! Here are some tips for Making your garden a native bee paradise!

1.    Preserve and manage nesting sites

One of the most important things you can do to help protect your local native bees is to make sure that your yard is full of potential nesting sites. For mining bees, leave sunny patches of bare earth for nest sites and try to avoid laying down anything that could be a barrier (like landscaping cloth, gravel, or mulch) for bees accessing or emerging from potential existing nest sites. Also, leave unused areas of your garden with old wood, stones, or branches undisturbed as a cavity-nesting bee haven.

You can also install a bee hotel in your yard. Often made from wood or bamboo, these hotels are great for cavity-nesting bees like the Blue Orchard Mason Bee or Leafcutter Bee! You can build one yourself or buy them from reputable suppliers like our friends at The Bees Waggle.

2.    Make your garden a bee buffet

To ensure that your garden is a Mecca for bees of all shapes and sizes, you need to make sure that there is a diversity of forage as well. Plant a mix of perennials and annuals so that you will have a mix of different blooms at the same time throughout the entire growing season. Also, try to have blocks of color in your garden so bees can easily find their way to the flowers they like over and over again, without having to hunt all around for them. Of course, native bees like native plants, so make sure to dedicate a portion (or all) of your garden to wildflowers. The Xerces Society has a variety of region-specific plant guides for pollinators that can get you started toward planting for native bees.

We did the hard work for you and made our Bee Rescue Wildflower Mix that will provide great season-long forage for both native and honeybees!

3.    Lay off the pesticides

Pesticides can’t discriminate between the bad and good bugs. These insecticides pose a particular danger to mining bees since they are often applied to bare ground areas around structures that are ideal nesting sites for these bees. These insecticides also pose the risk of washing into other areas of the garden and contaminating nest sites.

Neonicotinoids, or neonics, are systematic pesticides that live inside the plants that they are trying to protect. These have been particularly harmful to our various pollinator species because they work their way up through the plant into the nectar and pollen that various pollinators are attracted to. Flowers with neonics applied are actually luring bees and other insect pollinators to their deaths!

For tips on how to protect your garden and the bees in it, check out our eBook on Organic Pest Control!

4.    Take a closer look

One of the most important things your can do to protect native bees is to learn! Take some time to watch all the bees that visit and live in your garden. Visit the Xerces Society website and use their identification guides to try to figure out which bees you are seeing. Most importantly, SPREAD THE WORD! Educate your friends and family about all the bees that don’t make the nightly news and how vital they are to our future!

Other Resources

Check out these resources for more about pollinators and how you can help them

Pollination Syndrome

by Heather Stone

Did you know that different kinds of pollinators like certain kinds of flowers and are more likely to visit those flowers? Why is this? As both plants and pollinators have evolved over time certain characteristics or traits have developed to help these plants and pollinators interact more successfully. For plants, this means that pollen collected will be carried to another flower of the same kind and successful reproduction occurs. For pollinators, this means the ability to find and access necessary nectar and pollen resources. Pollination syndrome is defined as suites of flower traits that have evolved in response to natural selection imposed by different pollen vectors, which can be abiotic (wind and water) or biotic, such as animals, birds, bees, flies, moths, beetles and butterflies. There is a collection of characteristics that flowers have evolved to better ensure pollination. These include flower shape, color, odor, nectar, pollen, and the presence or absence of nectar guides.

 

What kind of flowers do some of our favorite pollinators prefer? 

 

Bees

Bee-pollinated flowers tend to have a lobe that acts as a landing pad for the bee. The flowers reproductive parts are often located at the top of tubular petals, dusting the back of the bee as it enters. Bumblebees have longer tongues than honeybees and are often drawn to deep, tubular flowers. Bees like brightly colored flowers, especially blues and yellows with a light, fresh scent. Bees can not see the color red so will not visit those flowers. Nectar and pollen need to be abundant and nectar guides are present.Orange Rudbeckia flower.

Cluster of Caltapa flowers hanging from tree branch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds can hover while drinking nectar so require no landing pad. These flowers are usually large and funnel-shaped. The flowers anthers dust the top of the hummingbird as it drinks. Red is the preferred color, but they are also attracted to pink and orange colored flowers as well. These flowers usually have little to no scent. Ample nectar supply is important.

Beetles

Beetles prefer a large bowl-shaped flower such as a magnolia. They simply crawl around the flower looking for nectar and in turn, are dusted by pollen. The flower colors are usually white or green and can range in scent from none to overly fruity. Some beetles are also very attracted to flowers with a strong putrid or rotting flesh smell.  

Single, white Magnolia blossom.

 

Butterflies

Butterflies prefer narrow, tubular flowers with a wide landing pad. They are attracted to brightly colored flowers especially shades of pink, blue, yellow, red and purple with a pleasant floral scent. Ample nectar supply is important and nectar guides are present on these flowers.

Moths

Moths prefer regular or tubular shaped flowers without a lip. These flowers are usually white or dull shades of red, purple or pink. The flowers have a strong scent allowing the moths to locate them at night when they are most active.

A stalk of Yucca blossoms.

 

 

 

Bats

Bats prefer flowers that are regular and bowl-shaped and only open at night when they are feeding. They are usually white, green or purple. These flowers must have an abundant supply of both nectar and pollen.Tall flower stalk of an Agave agains blue sky.

 

 

Flies

What kinds of flowers are flies attracted to? Flies are attracted to those plants with a strong putrid odor resembling the smell of rotten flesh. The flowers are often a purplish color meant to look like the flesh of a rotting animal. They can be shallow and funnel-like or complex and trap-like in shape.

 

 

SUMMER HARVEST

by Engrid Winslow

At last, the bounty of your summer garden is at its peak and you can gather all of those glorious tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, corn, chard, kale, summer squash, onions and other vegetables to enjoy at their freshest and most flavorful. But, ahem, some of us may plant more than we can eat in a day. Well, whether that is planned excess or not, here are a few tricks for preserving that bounty using just your freezer and pantry.

Onions – When the tops flop over onto the ground it’s time to pull them out and let them dry out in the sun or inside in a cool, dry location. Some onions, such as cippolini, are great storage onions but for the ones that aren’t…Ever tried onion jam? How about bacon and onion jam. You can refrigerate them and use them up quickly or pop a few jars into the freezer for a festive addition to a holiday cheese platter. Here are the links to two delicious recipes you can try:

http://www.cookingchanneltv.com/recipes/onion-jam https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1015978-bacon-onion-jam.

You’re welcome.

 

Corn – Shuck as much as you can and then flash boil for about 2 minutes. Let cool and then scrape off the kernels into a large bowl and scoop out two cups into a plastic bag or container for freezing. Add them to that turkey soup you make after Thanksgiving every year along with some of the frozen shell peas you harvested and froze in the spring.

Tomatoes – This technique works best with cherry tomatoes and is a little bit of trouble but OMG are these delicious. Add them to pizza, pasta, soups, sandwiches or serve on grilled bread as a quick crostini. The flavor of these will make you want to plant even more tomatoes next year. Heat oven to 200 degrees. Arrange cherry tomatoes on a lined, rimmed baking sheet, cut side up. Drizzle with olive oil and add a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Let them “oven dry” for up to 2 ½ hours, checking frequently at the two-hour mark. You can also do this with large tomatoes which will yield a “saucier” result.

 

Zucchini – Use small, tender-skinned, deep green ones. Shred and steam for 1-2 minutes. Freeze in desired quantities for adding to slaw, pasta, soups or your famous zucchini bread.

How to Get Rid of Weeds

by Sandy Swegel

That’s the question I hear most often in Spring.

The question comes most often from my friends who are very smart and successful in busy lives.  Their garden is one aspect of their beautiful complicated lives but it’s always a challenge because it’s not easy to make nature conform to what you want with one big weekend cleanup.

So there was an animated discussion about the best digging tools and homemade vinegar solutions. Everyone wants to protect the earth and the bees but frankly feel they have failed when the same weeds overwhelm their garden every season.  You know the weeds I mean, the ones that have grown very tall when you walk into your yard in late June and see that they just went to seed, making thousands of new baby weeds.

At some point, someone asks me what my tool is as a professional gardener.  My friends never find my answers very entertaining, so they usually return to a discussion of their latest internet surefire natural weed killer.  Nevertheless, here is my answer from years of experience of dealing with weeds.

 

The best tool is diligence.  Weeds have a strong will to live and procreate.  You have to be vigilant for them and keep after them.

After setting a firm determination about what weeds are permissible and which aren’t, then here are some techniques.

Get them when they are little.

Right now in your gardens, there are thousands of tiny weed seedlings you could control with one stroke of your hand hoe.  Off with their heads:  tiny seedlings don’t survive if they loose their leaves. Learn what young weeds look like.  Bindweed babies are cute little heart shapes.

 

Learn to love them. 

Dandelions are the best example of a “weed” you can learn to love.  In moderation of course.

They are very cute…children love them.  They are one of the first foods of hungry bees each Spring.  You will have more time and less frustration in your garden if you don’t have to eradicate all the dandelions.

 

If you do decide to get rid of perennial weeds…be smart and determined.  Don’t just hack it up in frustration every Spring and let it grow and strengthen the rest of the year.  You can’t get nasty perennials all at once….but you can wear it down and weaken it.  I have a sharp hori-hori knife and dig out at least four inches of root.  If the weed reappears, I recognize it and dig a little deeper the next time.  Soon it will exhaust itself and give up.

 

Finally, have a cup of tea.

Or at least get the electric kettle out.  Boiling water or hotter steam does an excellent job in rocks and walkways,  especially when weeds are young. And it is very satisfying.

 

Photocredits

https://weedecology.css.cornell.edu/weed/weed.php?id=6

http://www.blikk.hu/eletmod/tippek/elleptek-a-kertjet-a-gazok-igy-szabadulhat-meg-toluk/f38r539

 

ILLITERATE GARDEN

By: Sandy Swegel

“My garden is illiterate.  It didn’t read the book about what it can’t do.”

That was the wisecracking opening remark at a gardening talk I attended recently.  We all laughed and during the break we started talking about some of the stupidest plants we know.

Looking at wild plants, we laughed about orchids native to cold, arid Colorado.  But the most illiterate plants are the ones we humans planted because we didn’t know better.

The plants that don’t know they can’t survive in Zone 5.

Pineapple sage don’t you know anything? You like living in semi-tropics.  What are you doing living another year in the Colorado clay soil iris garden with 70 mph winds?

The plants that don’t know that being an annual means can’t live longer than one year.

Yep Verbena bonariensis I’m talking about you.  The books say you are an annual but I’ve watched you survive for three years in a row.  Ditto snapdragons…I have trees younger than you.

Plants that don’t know they are supposed to be invasive.

I’m waiting for you, bamboo. Any day now you’re supposed to fill in that entire border between my yard and my neighbor’s ugly garage.  Sure, four years ago I saw one runner into the grass…but what have you done lately?

Codependent plants.

These are the plants that not only don’t know they can’t survive but also put up with terrible abuse.  Don’t be sweet-talking me Japanese Maple.  You know who you are.  You croaked all those times I planted you in protected areas and nurtured you with extra mulch in winter and water in summer.  But the year I put you, a tree, in a pot with six other plants on a third-floor deck without protection from the cold and without winter watering…that’s the year you survive?

If it were up to humans, we’d never have surprises in the garden or tulips blooming in July or scabiosa blooming in December literally under the snow.  Or the gallardia that blooms in my driveway. We won’t even mention the weed that seeded and bloomed in my truck bumper the December I was driving around Louisiana.

What a relief that our plants are so darn illiterate.

 

Photocredits:

fullycoolpix.blogspot.com/2014/08/plants-live-everywhere.html

www.boredpanda.com/plants-flowers-versus-concrete-asphalt-pavement/

 

Take a Listening Walk

By: Sandy Swegel

The skies were gray this morning.  The landscape was brown and dead.  I kept looking for Spring but at best there were just the green tips of bulbs appearing among dead leaves. Maybe the buds were swelling on trees.  It was cold, but it still felt like Spring.  How could that be?

The loud demanding chirping of some birds interrupted my thoughts and I realized I could HEAR Spring. So I took a walk to a nearby pond and while I couldn’t really see Spring…the pond scenery was just as brown as my yard was…but now I knew…nature is waking up.

I could hear the male birds in rapt mating calls…doing their best to make some new baby birds.  Lots of mating and birthing going on in Spring.  I could hear some tiny chirps that I think were baby sparrows or finches.  There was rustling in the winter leaf debris.  I couldn’t see anything but I could guess there were baby caterpillars and insects under there that the birds were scratching to find.  I suspect there were little mice in there too.  Which meant that snakes were waking up and slithering in the grasses.

There wasn’t much to see, but I could hear nature erupting in new life. Spring is noisy.   A nature walk in January is pretty quiet except for some chickadees and perhaps large animals running off, startled by a human invading their wild territory.  But Spring makes an absolute racket.  Even the water is noisy.  A week of warm weather had melted ice and brooks were babbling again.

Very early Spring is subtle.  I know from the sounds that new life is starting.  But it’s a slow lazy waking up.  Snow is coming later in the week and I’m reminded of the adage that March is the snowiest month.

The avid gardener has just a few tasks in early Spring.  One is to enjoy nature without having to work to weed or control it.  Another is to do some pruning while the trees and shrubs are still dormant.  But after a cold morning walk, the best thing this gardener can do is go inside and start some more seeds under the lights.  Outside, Mother Nature can call the shots.  Inside, I’m getting a head start on all those seeds that I want to grow now!

Photo credits:

cuddlesandmuddles.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/world-book-day-activities-taking-a-listening-walk/

www.twrcwildlifecenter.org/volunteer/baby-bird-program/

LAB GIRL

By:  Sandy SwegelClose-up photo of Calendula seeds.

 

Hope Jahren has helped me fall even more deeply with seeds and the natural world this week. Our book group just started to read her best selling book “Lab Girl.” Lab Girl is like two books in one….a marvelous account of her life as a woman in science AND a romantic ode to nature that waxes poetic about seeds and trees and vines that want to climb.

Here’s her excerpt about seeds:

“A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance—to take its one and only chance to grow.

A seed is alive while it waits. Every acorn on the ground is just as alive as the three-hundred-year-old oak tree that towers over it. Neither the seed nor the old oak is growing; they are both just waiting.”

I love seeds. I love to walk up and down the aisles of the BBB Seed warehouse and touch the hundreds of thousands of seeds that are there, full of potential. To imagine just a single packet grown out and burst into bloom. Hope Jahren has given me yet another vision: all those seeds there. Alive. As alive as the trees outdoors. Alive and waiting. Waiting patiently and calmly.Close-up photo of the seeds in BBB Seed's Honey Source Mix.

 

 

Photocredits:

www.opensesamemovie/heirloom-seeds-extinction/

Tiny homes in the winter landscape

by Sandy Swegel

A week of warm days meant it was time  to cut back the ornamental grasses that are so popular in Colorado.  What is winter interest in December and January now looks messy and broken by winter winds and snow load.  Cutting back big grasses can be a bear of a task but it has its unexpected rewards.

Feather reed grasses like Karl Forster should be cut first because they green up the earliest so look much nicer if they get their haircut while mostly dormant.  One secret to keeping your ornamental grasses looking good (so you don’t have to dig them up and divide them much) is to cut them very short to within an inch or two of the ground instead of the ugly foot high cut that’s don’t in urban medians.

And in that inch or two above the ground is where I found the tiny neighborhoods hidden in winter debris.  The noise and racket I made cutting and then raking brought out the inhabitants.

First, adult ladybugs flew up…a little surprised at the sudden sun but not too alarmed…mostly looking around for aphids to eat, maybe water to drink.

Next the young lime-green lacewings stirred, reluctant to be disturbed as the true adolescents they were.  They tried to just move a centimeter to the left under some other debris to go back to sleep.  The bug equivalent of pulling the blankets over their heads.

Finally, I accidentally disturbed a solitary bee that was half an inch under the soil.  Poor bee was in a semi-dormant state and just lay on its side barely moving as the earthquake that was me had just thrown him to the surface. They reminded me more of the college student down in the basement on Spring Break.  The house needs to be burning down before they wake up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning.   I learned the hard way to be sure to wear gloves when because a groggy bee will reflexively sting you much like that surly college student is likely to throw something at you at 7 am.  I took a bit of loose dirt and debris and buried the bee again, hoping it would just settle down unharmed.  No point in waking up now before breakfast was ready. The dandelions don’t have flowers yet.

 

Nature in late winter hides most of her inhabitants.  They are in tiny nests under grasses and at the feet of willows or in debris under the shrubs.  The insects I saw in my first venture into the garden don’t bolt awake as we do on a Monday morning trying to get to work.  They’re more like cats, stretching and maybe yawning then turning around to find another comfy position to sleep in.   They are just adorable.

Photo credits

https://closecritters.com/2016/11/27/trash-bugs-lacewing-larvae/

http://dallas.culturemap.com/news/restaurants-bars/06-09-13-north-texas-farmer-garden-native-solitary-bees/

Wildflower Forecasts 2017

by Sandy Swegel

It’s looking good this year.

Most of us are still languishing in winter, looking for signs of crocus sprouting or swelling buds on trees, but the deserts of the US are ramping up for their big annual show. When wildflower lovers need a dose of Spring, they don’t go to a beach in Mexico or Hawaii, they head for the desert. Many of the flowers in the desert bloom in the early cool season (February to Early May), then revert into dormancy during the heat of summer. Naturally there’s a website for reporting wildflower sightings. My favorite wildflower website for the Southwest is http://www.desertusa.com/wildflo/wildupdates.html where you’ll find regular updates of rainfall and sightings of emerging plants and first bloom,

Forecasts for wildflowers are made from meteorological reports of rainfall and snowfall and sometimes soil moisture. It’s pretty basic…a wet winter means higher seed germination rates and more wildflowers.

Here’s what’s coming first in the deserts:
First bluebonnet (lupine) in Texas Big Bend National Park now.
What it will look like in southern Texas soon.

 

 

For your own wildflowers in your yard, you can tweak Nature a bit if you haven’t had much rain or snow this year. A little extra hand watering on your wildflowers if during dry spells this winter will boost your Spring bloom.

 

Photo credits
http://myphotomemries.blogspot.com/2015/04/abby-and-big-bend-bluebonnets.html
http://hadleycourt.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Screen-Shot-2014-03-24-at-6.15.35-AM.png

Five Spot: A wildflower for shade and for native bees

by Sandy Swegel

I love blue flowers so naturally I am enthused about our new “Blue Blazes” collection of seeds for eight different blue wildflowers. What really caught my attention is a little flower I’ve never seen growing that now I just have to have.

Nemophila maculata is white with single blue-purple spots on the tips of each of its five petals. So cute. Such an unusual design is believed to have evolved to capture the attention of native solitary bees. “Five Spot,” the flower’s common name, is an early cool-season annual flower that prefers shady moist areas. Although my garden in Colorado is pretty dry, shady areas under trees are well-watered in Spring where the snow is slow to melt in the shade. Perfect I think for a flower whose name Nemophila loosely translates as “woodland lover.”

 

I’m going to plant my five spots in an area with that has early Spring purple crocuses and early Summer blue columbine. I’m hoping Five Spot blooms just between those two.

 

Five Spot finishes blooming once the weather gets hot, but it leaves seeds to reappear next Spring. Now I have a new travel destination on my list: California’s Sierra Nevada in early Spring when fields of this sweet wildflower bloom naturally.

 

 

 

Photo credit
https://agresearchmag.ars.usda.gov/2010/aug/bee

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nemophila_maculata#