The Blue Ridge Naturalist: Bees in Your Backyard

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A pollen-covered bee, clothed in lovely bright-yellow hair, feeds upon the nectar of a Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor) in the author’s yard. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

You’ve probably heard that bees and other pollinators are disappearing. As a result, many folks are creating pollinator gardens, the point of which—in most people’s minds—is to grow nectar-producing plants.

But in the case of bees, you can do more than just provide food plants! How about building a bumblebee house, a bee nest bundle, or a bee block—structures in which certain species can nest? Or you might want to create a sand pit where particular bee species can reproduce.

You can learn about these bee “homes” and the many ways in which you can help bees with the assistance of a new book, Bees in Your Backyard by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril.

Subtitled A Guide to North America’s Bees, this book doesn’t just help you to identify bees, as a typical field guide does. It’s a real book (weighing in at 2¼ pounds) that delves into much more, perhaps far more than you thought possible to know about these insects.

The information presented by the two biologists is both fascinating, and more importantly, useful.  You will learn the differences between bees and their close relatives, the hornets and wasps, as well as between bees and flies, many of which mimic bees in their coloration. In addition, you can read about their life cycle and behavior, the animals that prey upon them, as well as how to provide bee habitat.

You may know that bees assist with seed (or fruit) set in 70 percent of the world’s flowering plants, including many of our food plants, by inadvertently moving pollen between them. But did you know that this occurs thanks to their hairy bodies to which pollen adheres easily, unlike the “naked” bodies of wasps? Or that the bee hairs are branched (the easier to “catch” pollen), being quite similar in structure to bird feathers?

Despite the huge number of bee species (more than 4,000 in the United States and Canada) living among us, and their importance to us gastronomically and economically, most folks know very little about them. Say the word “bee” and for most people, the honey bee immediately comes to mind. Yet even though they are ubiquitous, these bees aren’t native to America. They were brought here from Europe.

Although honey bees live in colonies above ground in a hive, most other kinds (70 percent) of bees live solitary lives below ground. A single female digs out a hole in a manner that’s no different from that of a burrowing mammal, carefully preparing her nest site before laying any eggs in it.

Different species make use of different types of soil. Some kinds of bees prefer hard-packed clay while others favor loose or sandy soil. In our area, bees using hard-packed clay shouldn’t have any problems finding the proper habitat, but you can create a sand pit for the bees that need a sandy loam. The authors tell us to simply fill a raised bed or a planter box with these hard grains of rock or even to just make a pile of sand out in the yard. Easy!

Some bee species reproduce within hollow wooden twigs or dried plant stems that are left over from the previous year (another reason to disregard horticultural advice to clean up your garden in fall). You can also drill holes of the proper size into a piece of wood and place it into a sunny spot in your garden. Details and photographs for these suggestions are provided in the book.

Unfortunately, as seems to be the case with books written by scientists whose careers involve insects, the subject of collecting them (killing the creatures to stick them on a pin for display purposes) invariably comes up. You may be aware that I am totally against killing arthropods solely for the pleasure of looking at your own personal display case of them.

Killing any life form just for fun (“sport”), or exhibit purposes only, turns the organism into something of no importance. Insect collecting illustrates a total disregard for the value of each of these living beings, which, more than ever, we need—alive—for the proper functioning of our environment.

I can tell you for a fact—because I’ve paid close attention to the natural world for as long as I can remember—that the numbers of most kinds of insects are way, way down from when I was a child. We are facing a crisis that people are only slowly coming around to recognizing, such as the current general awareness about declining numbers of bees and other pollinators.

Thus the authors do include a brief discussion about whether killing bees is “bad.” But as I’ve found to be invariably true when it comes to wildlife conservation issues, people always manage to convince themselves that whatever they want to do is either harmless to the overall wellbeing of a species, or that it’s going to help the species by making other people care about it, or at least contribute money for “the cause.”

But if virtually everyone thinks he’s justified in his actions, even if it costs the life of “just one” individual, the numbers of individuals overall can add up to a substantial reduction of life forms that are already greatly diminished in number. To conserve life, people should follow the Hippocratic Oath to “take care that [an individual organism] suffer no hurt or damage” at their hands unless there’s a darned good reason for it.

It’s strange that when people talk about recycling, each individual’s actions make a difference. But when people talk about wildlife conservation, suddenly each person’s conduct is held to be harmless.

Despite my objection to any encouragement of insect collecting, I highly recommend this book. The subject matter is fascinating and easily understood because the writing style is very friendly. It’s an enjoyable read.

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