Native bee on yarrow
A place for native bees to nest
European honeybee, European thyme
Big, scary bee!
Smaller carpenter bee
You might think that bees think like this: see nectar, drink nectar. Find pollen, collect pollen. Simple, but incorrect. It’s more like European bees have European tastes and native bees have native tastes.
Our familiar honeybees originated in Europe. They generally like European flowers: thyme, rosemary, lavender, mint, oregano, stone fruit and apple blossoms. Yarrow and native sage, not so much. They like California poppies, so at least they can develop new tastes.
On the other hand, I’ve never seen a native bee in the thyme. Same for the other European mint family plants. Native bees love native plants, apparently: annual wildflowers, yarrow Pozo blue sage… Each plant has it’s own fans; carpenter bees don’t visit yarrow and leafcutters don’t visit the sage.
There are a lot of species of native bees. Most are small, with the notable exception of the carpenter bees. They don’t build honeycombs or any of that stuff, either. They’re solitary bees who eschew hive dwelling for a simpler lifestyle, typically nesting in the ground or in holes in wood or plant stems without forming large colonies. Leaving some areas with bare ground gives these species a place to dig their nest holes. Wood blocks for leafcutter bees (megachilids in Latin) are even available commercially, since these bees are very good at pollinating alfalfa.
Carpenter bees are big, black and fly with a loud buzz. There is also an ocher color variant, that seems to come out earlier in the year and is much fuzzier than the black, shiny bees flying now. As their name suggests, they nest in holes in wood. So far, we haven’t managed to attract any of them to the stumps we’ve left around, but they must have a nest somewhere because there certainly are a lot of them in our native sage.
Leaf-cutter bees also nest in holes in wood, although they don’t chew them out themselves. These bees are supposedly great pollinators and some are important agriculturally. In the garden, we seem to get the species that cuts circular leaves in roses. The bees carry off the trimmings to feed to their larvae, leaving the rose bush looking like someone took some kind of hole punch to the leaves. So, is a good pollinator that also does strange things to rose bushes a beneficial insect or….? In any case, I like watching them cut the leaf pieces since it’s kind of like a cartoon where someone stands on a plank that he saws off. The bees use the same technique, sitting on the piece of leaf to be cut, slicing it off with their mandibles and falling a short distance with the piece until they fly off to their nest.
Other native bees tend to be small. Some are brightly colored, others black and white. None of them really looks like a honeybee. None of them builds honeycombs.
Bees are not the same as wasps or hornets, although they’re related. Wasps (sphecids and vespids) are typically larger. Vespids make nests and form large colonies, and have painful stings (most native bees are more docile and some are even stingless). Wasps aren’t a bad thing to have around despite their stings, since many are predators of caterpillars and are therefore considered beneficial insects.
There are a lot of bee groups promoting bee friendly gardens. For some reason, they often tend to write in “bee style”. Although I find this style grating and obnoxious instead of cute, it’s certainly popular. Here’s what I mean:
Be friendly to bees and they’ll bee friendly to you. Bee-come a bee-nevolent bee-nefactor by planting bee-friendly plants to bee-nefit bee populations bee-yond your garden and restore bee-o-diversity in your area. Bee populations are bee-ing menaced by habitat loss for native species and disease for honeybees. So bee active, bee ecological and bee aware of which plants bring buzzing bee-auty. Plant a variety of bee plants that bloom throughout the year so there will be nectar and pollen for bees of all kinds. Catch the buzz and bee-friend your local bees!
Yeah, it’s pretty much like that. Except that they’re serious. I’m just bee-ing facetious.