Tuesday, July 27, 2010

You Can Grow Cicada Killers at Your Home! (Managing Native Bees and Wasps)

Ah, Cicada Killer, how I missed you when there was 50" of snow on the ground!
Okay, first off, how completely insane does this blog post title sound! Maybe one day I'll be an extension agent for the state, and they will allow me to write an extension bulletin with this title. Ha ha ha! I bet that tons of people will download that one! I had to up the ante from the catchy title of last year's Cicada Killer Post. And a year ago, I did promise all you lurkers that I would post again about how to actually encourage native bees and wasps to use your yards and gardens.
You are probably figuring out that I am all about the bees. At a time when our dependable Euro Honey Bee is really having a rough go of things, particularly parasites and pesticides, gardeners and farmers would be wise to actively manage for native bees and wasps to pollinate your crops. Studies have consistently shown that native bees are fare more efficient, anyway. So what do you do?
It's pretty simple! Native bees and wasps prefer not to travel far from their nests, so where do we put the nest habitat? First, we're going to break down the native bees & wasps very unscientifically into those species that build their own nests and species that use pre-existing nests. For species that build their own nests (excluding carpenter bees - discussed below, mud daubers, yellow jackets, and bald-faced hornets - none of which you reeeeallly need to encourage), I've basically figured out that what you need is an area of coarse sand that is partially vegetated and is sloped 30-60 degrees. A semi-open sandy slope, that is. I have found several sites meeting this criteria that are densely covered in native bee & wasp burrows. Here's a picture of a cicada killer nest on such a site:


Dare you to stick your finger in there!
The primary species drawn to this habitat will be a variety of predatory wasps, many of which are minor pollinators, but their main value to the garden or farm is their brutal rate of killing other insects, particularly unwanted caterpillars (see the last two photos in this post) to feed themselves and their young. One unwanted guest you will have to look out for are yellowjackets, which create much larger social hives underground than most of our native wasps. Yellowjackets aggressively defend their nests in large numbers, unlike most other native bees and wasps. So be mindful!
What about the more highly valuable native pollinators like the mason bee, leafcutter bee, and the carpenter bee? These bees prefer to "manage" existing burrows, but will supplement them with new material, and if they believe the basic site is ideal, many of them will actually build their own nest from scratch. The traditional approach has been to place bee blocks on south facing sites, in areas where you know you will be doing significant planting of insect-pollinated crops. Based on what bees you believe will be active during the bloom, you can find out what diameter burrow they prefer, and fill the block with cleanly drilled holes of that size. Here's what a traditional bee block looks like, as offered by a great vendor, Andrew's Reclaimed Home & Garden:

Leaf Cutter Bee Block, Hand Crafted, On Etsy

I would be proud to have a bee block this attractive in my home or garden!
However, for my particular gardening application, I have plants in bloom from Mid-May until October, spanning the active seasons of several species of bees. I've been frustrated over the years to watch bees come to my bee blocks for 4 years now, not find a burrow they like, and fly off somewhere else. To deal with this, I've built several blocks with numerous, random size holes drilled all over that look like this and this (Heidi runs a neat blog, by the way!). Unfortunately, Mrs. Swampy does not really appreciate that aesthetic covering our entire yard, and I have to say I agree with her. So imagine my excitement today when I found this awesome and attractive bee block on the internet:

murphy audobon CA bee block

I never considered this design, and will be installing at least 3 of these blocks at home and at the garden for Spring 2011!!!

The above photo is by Brian Murphy of Mt. Diablo Audubon, and was given to Bay Nature, a nature magazine about the San Fransisco Bay. Their article that features this photo, "Back Yard Boarding House - How a Power Drill Can Attract Pollinators" is right up my alley - and should be up your alley too! Of course, there are dozens or hundreds of potential designs for bee houses, including those with liners. Check out these plans from USDA, Washington State University, National Wildlife Federation, the dependable folks at eHow, and a very useful post at the Phig Blog. For those of us with less free time but just as much enthusiasm, bee blocks, liners, and even dormant bees can be purchased all over the internet, from Mason Bee Homes to Andrew's Reclaimed to Territorial Seed and Pollinator Paradise.

Let me know how your bees do - I promise you'll hear about mine.


Bay Nature said...

Thanks for linking to Bay Nature magazine's article, and to our website!


Kirk Mantay said...

No problem, I enjoyed the article and I hope my readers do too!

Jessica Harwood said...

Interesting post! I'm glad I can still hate on the yellow jackets, but I will now be more respectful of the wasps ;)

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