Wood and Ground Bees
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- ---Susan in Vineland, New Jersey
Mike: We have carpenter bees attacking the house and my husband wants to call an exterminator. What can we do?
- ---Mary Kay in Washington, D.C.
- ---Elaine in Yardley, Pennsylvania
Answer. Although they are big and fearsome looking, carpenter bees don't sting people (as with most Native bees, the males can't and the females don't want to; women always seem to be more sensible). AND they rarely—if ever—cause any real damage to wood. Honest. Reference books note that home owners almost always overreact to the non-threat they pose.
But they are fabulous pollinators that will greatly improve your garden if you allow yourself to coexist with them. Here's how: Drill some' starter holes'—the same size as the bees are making in your siding ordeck—into big unfinished blocks of cedar, pine or other soft wood and hang these 'nesting blocks' in a protected area facing South or East near the area they're currently using. And no, we aren't going to trap the bees inside and throw them away; we're going to get them to live there—instead of with you.
Make your nesting blocks and get them up as early as possible in the Spring—so you can get the bees to move before the females actually lay any eggs in the nests you want them to abandon.
After the blocks are hung, wait till the middle of the first warm,sunny day—when the bees will be out looking for flowers to pollinate—and quickly plug up the holes they've made in your home with steel wool or metal screening stapled over top. And/or soak the surface with almond oil; Cornell researchers found that it repels carpenter bees. Just don't spray the bees! (Massage therapists use lots of almond oil; you'll be able to find it wherever they buy their supplies.)
The only way to keep carpenter bees from trying to sublet your siding is to paint, varnish or replace the unfinished cedar or redwood on the outside of your home. Yes, I know you used those naturally rot-resistant woods because you thought you wouldn't have to do those things, but these soft woods are very attractive to wood-boring bees.
Question. Dear Mike McGrath: Do you have any information about ground bees? We have an infestation in the lawn where the kids play on the swing set; there are tens of thousands of them! They land on the kids when they go in the yard and you can see them swarming all over when you drive by the house; the neighbors even comment on it. This happens every Spring, and we can't use the yard for months. We tried an exterminator but it did no good. < ---Hope and Russell in Chestnut Hill
Answer. Well, it may seem like "tens of thousands", but it is more likely "hundreds". Several types of ground nesting Native bees are very active in the Spring, nest building and pollinating early-flowering plants, but not in those kinds of numbers.
As you know, the bees are very gentle. The males can't sting (they may act menacing, but the best they could do is head-butt you), and the females can sting, but being women, know better. (That's probably why the guys DIDN'T get stingers.) You'd have to grab one to get stung. And even then you'd have to grab a female. Yes, the odd bee may land on one of your kids, but I'll bet none have been stung or you would have mentioned it.
These are great bees—far better pollinators of food plants and flowers than the imported European honeybee. Native bees fly earlier in the season, fly in the rain, work longer hours and aren't afflicted by the numerous pests and diseases that attack honeybee colonies. And they're simply better pollinators in general, greatly increasing the number of flowers on your ornamentals and the quality of your food crops.
Do nothing now. As you discovered, spraying poisons is more of a threat to you than to the bees. They will soon settle down (in weeks, not months; you exaggerator, you!) and virtually disappear.
Teach your children not to be afraid; that the males can't sting and the females won't because…well, because they're females. Explain that these are friendly bees that will bring them loads of flowers and pretty things in the garden—kind of like tiny buzzing Easter Bunnies.Have the kids wear sandals or flip-flops when they're outdoors in case they should accidentally step on one.
Then deter them from hogging the swing set next year by creating a natural barrier to their nesting. They only build their nests in bare ground or turf that's in terrible shape, so 'bee prepared' to improve the soil and sow the seed of a nice cool-season grass (like Kentucky bluegrass if the area is nice and sunny) in the ground they're using between August 15th and September 1st this fall. Sowing at that perfect time of year for your region should insure a nice thick, bee-proof lawn by Spring. (DON'T try sowing the seed over the summer; young cool-season grass cannot survive heat.) Then cut your new lawn at three inches high to keep it healthy and attractive to you but unattractive to the bees.
And if you now fear that your garden will suffer in their absence,leave some bare patches in an out of the way place. And if those neighbors and/or passers-by point at your bees in horror this Spring, just turn to them and say, "oh yes—our native bees; aren't they great?They're fabulous pollinators—and the kids just love playing with them."
For lots more info on native bees, including nifty nest-making designs,visit: http://www.attra.org/attra-pub/nativebee.html
You Bet Your Garden Question of the Week ©2006Mike McGrath