Buzzworthy Bungalows

Honey bees are, no doubt, an essential part of our food system, but we can’t give them all the glory for pollinating our plants. Long before these bees were brought over by European settlers in the 17th century, native bees were keeping the plants of North America pollinated.

Today, North America has 4,000 bee species that are native to the continent. They come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and colors — and they are indispensable, as they pollinate approximately 75 percent of the fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in this country.

“They are far more important in a lot of ways than the honey bees,” says Tara Chapman, owner of local honey company Two Hives Honey. “There are so many other bees that call Texas home that are important for our backyard gardens, and certainly our native plants.”

Some of the best-known native bees include bumble, mason, leafcutter and carpenter, but the varieties extend well beyond those four. The majority of native bee species fall into the category of solitary bees, meaning that they do not live in colonies as honey bees do. Rather, each female is an individual queen, foraging her own food, building her own nest and rearing her brood alone. Because they have no hives to defend, they are quite docile and are unlikely to sting anyone.

native bees quote

According to Matthew Shepherd, an expert on pollinators at the Xerces Society (a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to conserving invertebrates), about 30 percent of native bees, including mason bees and leafcutter bees, are solitary and nest in small, premade tunnels. Perhaps you’ve seen man-made varieties of these tunneled bee homes around Austin. Two Hives Honey sells a version using natural reeds to provide housing for the bees, while many gardeners will make their own bee habitats by drilling holes into blocks of wood.

“It’s remarkably simple, making your own bee nest. And it’s a very satisfying thing as well,” says Shepherd. “Once people have the houses in their yard, they do gradually get drawn in and find it more and more fascinating to watch the bees. You can see [the bees] flying past with their nesting materials, coming in and out of the holes.”

Hanging up a native bee house is a direct way to benefit these essential insects. Whether you make your own from scratch, remodel a preexisting structure with paper tubes and reeds or simply purchase one, providing pollinators with housing will also benefit your and your neighbors’ gardens and flowering plants.

If you are interested in getting a native bee home, be sure to keep a variety of nectar-rich and native plants, such as salvias, Turk’s cap, blackfoot daisies and coneflowers, in your yard for the bees to collect pollen from. Leafcutter bees are attracted to roses, as they use the leaves to create their tunnel system. Though native bees don’t produce honey, they still require pollen to feed their young.

native bees

“We have a really solid body of evidence that demonstrates that native plants do support greater diversity and a greater abundance of native bees,” Shepherd says. “The other thing that seems like a no-brainer is that you should try to avoid using pesticides, particularly insecticides, because they are inherently harmful to insects.”

If installing a bee house is not feasible, there are other ways you can support our native bee population. Leave small, cleared-off patches of dirt and small piles of brush scattered around your yard for the 70 percent of native bees who nest in the ground. And — just to drive it home one last time — gardening with native plants is always beneficial to the bees.


Bee Houses 101

Interested in getting your own bee house? Follow these tips to attract native bees and help them thrive in their new home!

• Place the house three to six feet off the ground, on a stable surface like the side of your home or a fence post.

• The house must get morning sun, so have it face the south or the east.

• The best time to place the house outside is in the early spring, when many native bees become active.

• Any bee house hung on an uncovered surface needs a roof to protect it from the rain.

• Each nesting hole should be between five and seven inches deep.

• Vary the diameter of nesting holes so a wider variety of native bees can nest. Keep the holes between 3/32 and 3/8 inches in diameter.

• To prevent the spread of disease and mites, each house should have no more than 20 nesting holes.

• Once the bees have emerged, clean out drilled holes or replace the tubes yearly to keep the house healthy.

• If predators like birds and wasps become a problem, place chicken wire over the front of the house.

• To help the bees easily recognize their own nest, slightly vary the length of each tube or paint the face of each hole a different color. Feel free to get creative with it — bees are particularly attracted to pastel colors!

For more information on native bees, visit xerces.org

Written by Darby Kendall • Photography by Pollydot and Franck Barske

For more information on native bees, visit xerces.org