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Groundnesting bees and Carpenter beesmay look scary, but they're really harmless garden helpers!
Question. Dear Mike: Every year atthis time, my front garden is inundated with swarms of fly-like insectsthat burrow into the earth and make holes. This area is partiallycovered with ivy and dead leaves, but there are also bulbs, hostas andother things. I just cleaned out all the dead leaves and other materialhoping that might help. HELP!
---Isla(pronounced ILA [like 'island']) from Elkins Park, PA
Mike: We have some sort of bee/wasp type insect that comes out in thespring through many holes in the ground (particularly under a pear andcherry tree). Do you know exactly what they are and how to get rid ofthem? We have a toddler, they have been hanging out on her brightyellow slide, and we want them gone before she gets stung!
Answer. Well, thank you, ladies—it'sbeen a while since I've had the chance to educate our listeners aboutthese wonderful Native bees. Yes, that's what they are—several types ofground nesting Native bees are very active in the Spring, pollinatingour early-flowering plants. (Those bees probably think that brightyellow slide is a forsythia bush—at least till they try and find thepollen!)
There's nothing to worry about—unlike yellowjackets (which also nest inthe ground, but only in the FALL, never in the Spring) these bees arevery gentle. The males can't sting. (That's why male bumblebees—anotherNative bee—act so menacing sometimes; the best those guys could do ishead-butt you.) The females could sting, but being women, know better.(That's probably why the guys DIDN'T get stingers.) You'd have to grabone to get stung. And even then, you'd have to grab a female.
Dr. Terry Griswold, a research entomologist at the USDA's Logan Bee Labat Utah State University (http://www.loganbeelab.usu.edu/)says that anumber of Native bees look a lot like flies, including at least one'gregarious' species that's active very early in the Spring. I think Iknow these guys! Just last week I had a lot of bees that looked a lotlike flies paying a huge amount of attention to the pussy willow Ideliberately planted smack dab in the middle of my garden to attractpollinators.
And that's the BIG reason to leave these great bees alone—they are farbetter pollinators of food plants and flowers than the importedhoneybee (a European immigrant; NOT a Native bee). Natives fly earlierin the season, work longer hours and aren't afflicted by the numerouspests and diseases that attack honeybee colonies. And they're betterpollinators in general, greatly increasing the number of flowers onyour ornamentals and the quality of your food crops—especially thosefruit trees!
So do nothing. The bees are really active because they're nest-buildingright now. They'll soon settle down and virtually disappear—except forwhen you spy them visiting your plants and improving your garden'sfloweriferisness. Just wear sandals or flip-flops when you're outdoorsduring their active times in case you should accidentally step on one.
And if you decide these gentle bees are not welcome next year, put in anice thick lawn! They only build their little nests in bare ground orturf that's in terrible shape.
Question. Mike: I have battledcarpenter bees for years. They've been slowly destroying my deck withmultiple holes. Local nurseries and garden shops have no realsuggestions; they just point me to a can of Raid. I have sprayed theRaid around the deck once a week, which does seem to help, but I hateusing it since I have to spray upwards and it's very easy to inhalesome of the fumes, which I suspect is rather dangerous. I wish I couldhang something from the deck to ward them off. Any suggestions? Thanks
---John inWayne, PA
Answer. Well, of course we all haveone big suggestion to begin with, "John Wayne".
OK, all together now, YBYG listeners: "STOP USING RAID!" Thank you.Well done.
Alright—now, although they are big and fearsome looking, carpenter beesdon't sting people (as with other Native bees, the males can't and thefemales don't). But they are great pollinators who will double theamount of food and flowers in your gardens. AND they rarely—ifever—cause any real damage to wood.
The bees are just starting to build this year's nests in preparationfor mating. If you act quickly, you may be able to 'move' them withoutkilling any wonderful buzzers-to-be. Wait till they're all out lookingfor flowers on the next warm sunny day, and quickly plug up their holeswith steel wool or metal screening stapled overtop. You could alsospray or brush some almond oil around the area—Cornell researchersfound that it repels carpenter bees. Just don't spray the bees! (Youcan find almond oil in bulk anywhere massage therapists buy theirsupplies.) Then drill some 'starter holes'—same size as the beesmake—into big unfinished blocks of cedar, pine or other soft wood andhang them in a protected area facing South or East near the deck forthe bees to use instead.
Long term, you'll need to paint, varnish or replace (with metal orfiberglass) unfinished softwoods like cedar and redwood on the outsideof your home. Yes, I know you used those woods because you thought youwouldn't have to do those things, but they are very attractive towood-boring bees.
Again, these big buzzing puppies are beneficial in the garden, don'tsting, and don't cause structural harm. Honest. Reference books notethat homeowners almost always overreact to the non-threat they pose. Sotake a chill pill and enjoy the extra flowers.
Wanna see a blueberry Bee that looks just like a fly? Go to http://www.loganbeelab.usu.edu/,click on "gallery" and then choose "Osima".
You Bet Your Garden Question of the Week ©2005Mike McGrath