CO-Horts Blog

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Bee's Knees!

Posted by: Deryn Davidson, Boulder County Extension

April showers bring May flowers!!  A good saying to keep in mind while our gorgeous weather turns to snow and rain. As the spring season progresses, everything from plants to insects to gardeners begin to wake up and get ready for the season ahead. As plants start to bloom, they of course need to be pollinated to complete their life cycle and who better to do that job, than bees?! Certainly there are many, many other animal and insect species out there that pollinate, but bees are my favorite. 

leaf cutter bee
As you’re out tending your plants and garden beds, take a moment to notice the visitors that are starting to appear at the flowers. Chances are, many of them are our native bees. Most people are familiar with honey bees which hail from Europe, but few realize that we have over 900 species native to Colorado alone! There are more than 3,500 species in the U.S., and there are reports of 20,000 + species world wide. 

Perdita on the head of a Xylocopa. Photo by Stephen Buchmann.
Some bits about our native bees… First off, the majority of them do not sting! There are so many different species that often they are overlooked and/or people just don’t realize they are bees. One that is easy to overlook is the smallest bee species known, the Perdita minima. This little bee is less than 2mm (<0.08 inches). The largest bee found in the US is the carpenter bee which is in the genus Xylocopa; they range in size from 1/2-1 inch. 

ground nesting bee
underground nests
Most of our native bees are solitary, as opposed to the social honey bee who form large colonies of 40,000 + individual bees. You can find evidence of the native bee's nests in dead wood, pithy stems, pre-existing cavities, and in many cases, underground. Knowing this makes it easy to create habitat for these little friends of the garden. Beyond just providing food (flowers for nectar (carbs) and pollen (protein)) you can provide shelter and water which completes the habitat and will make your garden more attractive for them to move in and stay awhile. 

old stumps in the garden provide habitat for native bees

For the cavity nesters you can include a snag (old wood stump or branch) in your landscape or you can build a bee condo (see UC Berkley Urban Bee Lab for more info). For the ground nesters you can leave areas of sunny, undisturbed ground that will be inviting for them to create their little underground tunnels and nests. Keep an eye out for small holes in your soil, it might be the entrance to a bee’s home!!

hives at the WFC
Honey bees are also a lot of fun. I started beekeeping when I lived in Austin, TX. My first hive was a transplant from an established hive that had taken up residence in a duck nesting box. My mentor and I suited up and carefully moved the hive out of the box and into a Langstroth hive (typical white boxes that you think of). It was quite an exciting day! I was able to keep my hives at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center , where I worked at the time. Those were some happy bees!

honey bee
Here at the Boulder County Extension Office we are working to increase pollinator habitat by planting more gardens and we will be starting up honey bee hives again this spring. Because they are such great pollinators, bees are naturally a gardener’s friend. Without their help, and the help of other beneficial insects, your vegetable garden wouldn't be able produce the bounty that feeds you and your family, and your flower gardens would be less productive. As gardeners who depend on the ecosystem service they provide (pollination), we need to raise our awareness, and help to conserve and create habitat whenever possible. They are our modest companions in the gardens, and when provided with a little food and shelter, they will work tirelessly with us, and our gardens will be all the better for it!

sweat bee

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