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Hometown Honeys


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The bee world is populated with much more than honeybees. Prepare to be surprised.

Story & Photography By Jeff Rugg

You may have been told that bees are beneficial and that they pollinate a lot of agricultural crops. Most of the time when people talk about bees, they are talking about foreign honeybees, which were brought to North America by Europeans in the 17th century.

Honeybees are fine, but many bees that we see and call honeybees are actually native bees or flies that look like bees.

There are many other bee species native to Illinois, the Midwest and North America. While they aren’t often discussed, they do a lot of pollinating.

How Many Are There?
If you were asked to guess how many species of native bees there are in Illinois, would you guess less than 50 or more than 100? Most people are surprised that there are more than 300 species of bees native to Illinois. Worldwide, there are more species of bees than all the mammals, reptiles and amphibians combined — more than 20,000 species. Alan Molumby, professor of biology at the University of Illinois-Chicago says, “There are 60 to 70 species of native bees in just the Chicago area.”

Bees or Wasps?
He adds, “Bees are a type of wasp with good public relations. Bees are not predatory at any point in their life cycle. Bees differ from wasps in the fact that the larval stage eats pollen and the adults eat pollen and nectar. Wasps eat a carnivorous diet of insects, but the adults also drink nectar and sometimes juice from their victims. Wasps are an essential part of the Midwestern ecology, as they control the populations of many insects.”

Ed Bell, Ed.D., a Chicagoland beekeeper (www.belfrybees.com ) explains that there are several major differences between the honeybees most people are somewhat familiar with and native bees. “Honeybee queens can lay tens of thousands of eggs each summer for several years — as many as 1500 in one day,” he says. “On the other hand, many native bees have only one generation each year, and the female bee may only lay a dozen eggs.”

As for their lifespan, he adds that honeybee workers live for four to six weeks during the summer and up to four months in the winter. “The native bees you see in early spring visiting woodland wildflowers are not the same species that you see on fall asters, because most species have short adulthoods,” he adds. “Foraging workers will visit flowers from many species of plants during blooming periods. Native bee species often specialize in pollinating just one family of plants.”

Kinds of Native Bees
There are several categories of commonly found native bees; some not so common; and some impersonators that look like bees, but aren’t. The most frequently found native bees are leafcutter and mason bees, early spring digger and mining bees, long-horned bees, carpenter bees, bumblebees and sweat bees.

Some types of native bees are solitary nesters; others are communal. Among the solitary nesters, every female multitasks: she lays eggs, provides food for the larval stage and creates the enclosed cell where the larvas develop. There are no queens that lay eggs and workers that do everything else. Communal nesting species such as mason bees behave much like the solitary nesters except that they happen to nest near each other. Very few native bees are aggressive, except in self-defense.

Where They Live
The two main nesting locations for native bee species are in the ground or in tree trunks and branches. Ground-nesting species are attracted to sandy soil, which is frequently found in dune areas near Lake Michigan. Sandy soil can also be found around old sandboxes in playgrounds or in sand underlying patios and aboveground swimming pools. Carpenter bees are a wood-nesting species that drill their own holes in wood, but most native bees will use holes previously created by wood-boring insects, already hollow stems or soft, rotting logs.

Early spring digger or mining bees are the first bees you will see on woodland wildflowers in early spring. There are both solitary and communal ground-nesting species. At the other end of the season, ground-nesting long-horned bees are commonly found on asters, daisies and sunflowers.

Brightly colored sweat bees are more attracted to flowers, but some are attracted to the salt found in the sweat of people or animals. They nest in the ground and in dead or rotten wood.

Easily recognized, big, hairy bumblebees often have colonies in old chipmunk or rodent burrows. A single queen bumblebee starts a new colony each summer and a large colony may only have 400 bees. Since bumblebees are becoming rare, you can help researchers by letting them know which ones come to your flowers. Go to beespotter.mste.uiuc.edu to find identification keys and how to submit your photos.

Carpenter bees come in two sizes. Large ones are almost an inch long, while the small ones are less than ¼ inch long. They are both solitary and communal. Large carpenter bees burrow into wood, but small ones build nests in dead twigs and stems.

Damage due to leafcutter bees is often found on roses, redbuds and other garden plants. These solitary nesters cut circular pieces out of leaves. The leaf piece is used to line a small nest for an individual larva. Some species of these bees line the nest with leaf hairs, mud and resin.


How to Attract Them
“Bee species in the mason and leafcutter bee family are among the easiest to attract to your garden and can even be purchased in the larval stage,” explains Bell. “Mason bees are highly valued because they are much better pollinators of fruit trees than honeybees.” The adult mason bee, like many others, has a life span of four to six weeks. They collect pollen along the bottom of their abdomen where it contacts new flowers every time they land. Honeybees collect pollen on the hairs on their bodies and move it to storage in their “pollen basket” on their hind legs utilizing a “pollen comb.” The collected pollen may be cleaned off before the next flower.

Molumby points out that when you are trying to attract native bees, you need to consider the flowers from which the bees will be collecting pollen. “Many native and nonnative plants are good sources of pollen and bees don’t care about flower fragrance.” (To attract bees, it’s the visuals that are important — flower color, flower shape and petals that are convenient for landing.) “Colony nesting bees need larger beds of flowers since there are more of them, and they need to collect more pollen to raise more young,” he notes. “Solitary nesting bees need flower beds that are consistently available year to year.”

Nesting blocks for mason bees and leafcutter bees are easy to make. Any block of wood or a log that can have holes drilled at least 3 to 6 inches deep will work. Holes should be 5/16 of an inch in diameter and 3/4 of an inch apart. Another way to attract these bees is to bundle a group of hollow stems together. They can be pieces of small pipe, short lengths of bamboo or phragmites reed.

Many experienced mason beekeepers recommend lining each hole with a paper tube or using a stack of grooved boards. These methods allow the nesting material to be taken apart to clean out harmful mites or parasitic wasps and to clean out old mud walls for the next season.

The female bees lay eggs in the back of the holes of wood or pipe. Each egg is laid with a ball of pollen for food. The egg is walled off with a bit of mud for mason bees and a leaf piece for leaf cutter bees. The eggs closest to the open end of the tube will be males. They hatch first and are ready to mate with the females that hatch later and come from the back of the tube. After mating, the males die and the females begin searching for pollen.


Jeff Rugg is an Internationally Certified Arborist, an Illinois Certified Nurseryman and a Registered Landscape Architect with a background in zoology, horticulture and landscape architecture. jrugg@sbsmags.com



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