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Planning for pollinators

Entice bees with their own house and cafeteria.

There are 4,000 native bee species in North America, and they play an important role in the successful production of fruits, vegetables, and other crops. Attract the beneficial insects by creating a bee-friendly pasture just for them.

Entomologist Jim Cane with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service says to first decide what your goals are and how you plan to use the bees.

“For instance, the blue orchard bee that’s being managed by some to pollinate fruit trees, you only need to feed for three to five weeks per year. In that case, you’re mostly trying to extend the foraging season a few weeks past apple bloom, so maybe precede apple bloom with something to tide them over if they emerge a bit early,” says Cane. “For something like honeybees, who forage all during the growing season, there needs to be something in bloom for them at all times.”

The bee pasture should not be planted near crop fields that are sprayed with insecticide. Cane says a good location is adjacent to wild lands or undisturbed areas, which also benefit ground-nesting bees.

Attracting a specific bee from a long distance might take patience. On the other hand, if what you need is already buzzing around, you’ll witness the magic of a bee pasture in no time.

“If you already have some bees that are desirable, such as bumblebees, then simply put out more forage for them during the gaps in floral resource availability. That’s a much more attractable undertaking, and it will yield rewards fairly quickly,” says Cane.

You’ll be limited to the plants suitable for your area, so check with your Extension office. Also, explore your area when different flowers are blooming and see which bees are visiting. 

A buffet of native flowers and vegetables will attract bees, but they’ll also appreciate a place for shelter and nesting. 

Scott Black is the executive director of the Xerces Society. He says 70% of bees nest in the ground, and others burrow into twigs and old beetle tunnels. You can also provide shelter by building a bee box. 

“You get a block of wood that’s at least 4 to 6 inches, and you drill holes at least 5 inches deep that are usually anywhere from ¼ to ³∕8 inch,” says Black. “Varying hole sizes provides nests for different types of bees, because each type of bee nests in a certain hole size.” 

Hang the box out of direct sun. Facing the east is generally best. They get the morning sun, and the bees can wake up and fly out. Early spring is a good time to start this project, because then you’ll see bees coming and going all season. Have it high enough off the ground so when it rains, water won’t splash up on it (about 3 feet high). Replacing the bee block with a new one every few years is recommended.

Only 15% of bumblebees will inhabit a bee box, but they’re very important for pollination, especially if colony collapse disorder has wiped out the honeybees in your area. Providing habitat for bumblebees is not difficult. “Bees like overgrown weedy areas and big, tall grasses that fall over. I’ve seen them nest in abandoned or not very well-tended compost piles – anywhere they can build a nest that’s out of the weather to lay eggs,” says Black. “I refer to it as the little bit of messy habitat around the edges of your house or your farm.”

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