Attracting native bees to your backyard for a healthier habitat

A mason bee checks out a blossom. (Credit: Dave Hunter)

A mason bee checks out a blossom. (Credit: Dave Hunter)

The importance of bees in maintaining our food supply is well understood and these pollinators play a vital role in keeping our plant stocks healthy. But habitat loss, disease and pesticides are all taking a toll on bee populations, which is why some people are expressing interest in keeping honeybees themselves these days. 

But honeybees are just one of thousands of bee species that live across the United States. There are nearly 450 bee species in the Northeast alone and it turns out that honeybees aren’t even indigenous to this country — they’re imported from Europe.

If you really want to help the pollinators, advises Laura Klahre, a beekeeper and founder of Blossom Meadow Farm in Cutchogue, look no further than your own backyard for native bees.

Ms. Klahre refers to it as “bee ranching” and rather than maintaining honeybees and hives, it involves simply providing an enticing home for native species like the mason bee or leafcutter bee. She notes that because 25 to 30 percent of native bees live in hollow plant stems, old beetle tunnels of dead trees, or in driftwood holes, creating that tube-like environment is what bee ranchers do when hoping to attract natives.

“Anything that’s five-sixteenths of an inch wide or thereabouts,” Ms. Klahre explained of the ideal width for enticing native bee species. “I started thinking about how people have been cutting down their trees because they don’t like dead trees. But native bees like mason and leafcutter bees need flowers and a place to live.”

That’s where Ms. Klahre’s bee bundles come in. She makes them herself by tying together groups of phragmites stems sourced from the West Coast. These stems are then placed inside a larger tube that can be hung from trees and bushes around a property in order to entice native bees to move in.

Having flowering plants nearby is also vital. While honeybees will fly up to three miles in search of pollen, she explains that native bees will venture only 300 feet or so from home in search of food.

“People are not planting enough flowers anymore,” she said. “There’s no clover or dandelions. Everyone wants grass which looks like a food desert to a bee. Taking a bee to lunch is the easiest thing to do. Put up bee bundles and let the clover and dandelion go.”

Laura Klahre, beekeeper and founder of Blossom Meadow Farm in Cutchogue, at Sylvester Manor's Windmill Field with some of her bee bundles. (Credit: Eleanor P. Labrozzi)

Laura Klahre, beekeeper and founder of Blossom Meadow Farm in Cutchogue, at Sylvester Manor’s Windmill Field with some of her bee bundles. (Credit: Eleanor P. Labrozzi)

As a beekeeper, Ms. Klahre has been working with the farmers at Sylvester Manor for three years and started the process by moving her own mason bees to the property. But this year, she will be placing a number of her bee bundles around the farm to see if they might attract bees on their own.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that the native bees are responsible for our crops,” she said. “People think you have to have honeybees, but Sylvester farm is all native bees.”

“Native bees like mason and leaf cutter bees pollinate two to three times better than honeybees,” Ms. Klahre noted. “They have a furry underside and they belly flop on flowers and move around and pollen falls off easily. Honeybees carry pollen on their legs in baskets. They’re efficient pollen collectors, but not efficient pollinators.”

The reason bee ranching works so simply has to do with the life cycle of native bees. Unlike honeybees which live in hives and need to make honey in order to survive the winter, many native bees live only a short time. They don’t overwinter so they don’t need hives or honey.

The life cycle of the mason bee begins in spring when the adult female collects pollen and deposits it in tubes. She lays eggs on the pollen which serves as a nutrient source for the growing young. The mason bee then seals up the tube with mud (hence the name) and dies. The egg progresses to larvae and pupa by eating the pollen. In September, it spins a cocoon and the following spring, hatches out as an adult bee and the cycle starts again.

“One generation of mason bee takes a year. Leafcutter bees have two to three generations a year, from June to October,” said Ms. Klahre who notes that leafcutter bees live a similar lifestyle. Their name comes from the fact the mud plug they install in the incubation tubes is mixed with chewed up leaf parts.

“They’re nature’s hole punchers,” Ms. Klahre said. “They’ll go up to a lilac or rose and cut a little circle out of the leaf. You can tell if they’ve been there because they leave a cute little calling card.”

Close-up of a bee bundle ready for occupants at Sylvester Manor. (Credit: Eleanor P. Labrozzi)

Close-up of a bee bundle ready for occupants at Sylvester Manor. (Credit: Eleanor P. Labrozzi)

Admittedly, not everyone is keen to encourage bees in their backyard. Bees get a bad rap because of their ability to sting, but Ms. Klahre has found native bees are far more reluctant to sting than honeybees.

“The female going to collect food is the same bee laying an egg. She doesn’t want to fight with you and die because then she won’t reproduce,” Ms. Klahre explained. “Those duties are split in honeybees. You have the queen in the hive so if a female worker stings someone and dies, it’s no big loss.”

“Native bees do have stingers but they don’t want to use them,” she said. “Mason bees are the biggest sweethearts. It took me three years to get one to sting me, and I had to squeeze it in my hand.”

“Even then, it felt like a mosquito bite.”

If you’d like to try bee ranching for yourself, Laura Klahre’s bee bundles will be sold this summer at the Sylvester Manor Farmstand on Manwaring Road. They are also available at her Blossom Meadow Farm, 31855 Main Road, Cutchogue.