Bees in your backyard

Carole Curtis
Understanding the needs of bees goes a long way toward successful efforts to help them thrive.

COLUMBUS, OH. - From big Bombus bumble bees to emerald sweat bees and miniscule 1/10 inch Perditas, the world of native bees is as rich and interesting as the flowers they relish.

There are around 300 species of bees in Wisconsin, each with different resource requirements.

"Unless we understand the needs of these very diverse creatures, our efforts may be misguided or maybe even not useful," Dr. Olivia Messinger Carril said during a July webinar presented by The Ohio State University.

During the biologist's Master's project in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is about 50 by 100 miles in size, over 650 bee species were found.

"Over 40 of those were brand-new to science. They were new species that didn't have names prior to our work," she recalled. "And that's just in one little area in southern Utah."

At present, there are some 4,000 known species of bees in the U.S. Add one more for Lasioglossum gotham, a bluish-green beauty the size of a sesame seed that was first spotted in New York City and named in 2011.

The array prompted Carril and co-author Joe Wilson to write "The Bees in Your Backyard". With over 900 color photographs, their 2015 book is an overview and a celebration of bee biodiversity in North America.

The colorful, concise volume won a 2017 PROSE Award for from Association of American Publishers.

"We were inspired to write this book because we found there was a lot of interest in knowing about bees and how to help them, but very little understanding about what a bee was or how one might go about trying to help them," she explained.

How to identify a bee

To sort a bee from a fly, look for a rounded body, an overall fuzzy look and pollen-collecting hairs, particularly on the back legs. A  fly does not look anywhere near as furry, and has scrawny back legs.

Bees have longer antennae, which they use for smelling out flowers quickly, while flies tend to have stubby antennae. Looking closer, a fly has two wings; a bee has four.

Compared to bees, wasps are quite hairless and have a predatory look with longer, spiny legs they use to wrap around their prey.

Not all bees are hairy, however. The hileas, or clown-faced bee, doesn't need leg hair because she ingests, rather than carries, the pollen back to her nest, where she regurgitates it.

Another clue is metallic face hairs. Many wasps have them, causing a silvery facial shine, but bees do not.

"If you see that shine, it's a dead giveaway that it is not a bee. Bees in this country do not have that," Carril said.

Behavior is also a great clue.  Bees are busy, madly collecting as much pollen as they can for their offspring.

"Success, for a bee, is providing food for as many babies as possible," she said. "They don't mess around."

In contrast, wasps have a more leisurely manner, often flying with their legs dangling.

Where bees eat pollen, wasps eat meat and will be the critter after your hamburger or chicken at the barbeque.

In the yard

The bee families that can easily be seen in most backyards include mining bees, cellophane bees, sweat bees, mason and blue-orchard bees, and the Aidaes family, which includes digger, squash, honey, bumble and carpenter bees.

Most are solitary, living in bee-sized holes in the ground or in wood, trigs or stems.
With native solitary bees, the female is both queen and worker. She builds her own nest, lays the eggs and gathers all the pollen. She doesn't usually meet her offspring because she dies shortly after laying her eggs and sealing the nest.

Most ground-nesting bees nest within the first foot of soil, although there are exceptions, like the Utah bee that tunnels nine feet down.

Most native bees are very short-lived, flying for about five to eight weeks, and many are specialists that collect pollen from one particular family of plants. They time their emergence with the flowering of that genus.

Attracting bees

Making a yard bee-friendly can be as simple as providing food and nesting habitat.

When planting, aim for blooms across the season and a diversity of flower colors, shapes, sizes and plant families.

"Different bees have different preferences, so the more diversity you can plant, the more kinds of bees will find your garden resourceful," Carril explained.

Vegetable gardens are also great resources, with tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and herbs all well-loved by bees. For wonderful effect, mix vegetables and flowers together, Carril suggested.

Many native bees don't travel more than a couple of football fields in their lifetime.

We're talking about bees that are quite small, many a third or a quarter of an inch, so keep the distances between plants relatively small or connected," she advised.

For ground-nesting bees, providing habitat is as simple as leaving bits of ground undisturbed, like around flowers.

For wood-nesting bees, a bee wood block can be created with a drill bit of 3/8 inch or less, boring a series of holes 5-7 inches deep.

"The deeper holes encourage the females to lay female eggs and that's kind of an important thing," Carril observed.

Nest boxes, created with bamboo stems, straws or rolled up newspaper, can also be used.

For more information on bees, visit TheBuzz@OSU News.