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Worried about honeybee decline? Support your local native Bees

Question. I have tons of ground bees in the lawn in my front yard. How can I get rid of them?
    ---Iwona in Laurel Springs, NJ
Mike: We've had ground dwelling insects show up in our yard every Spring for the past few years. They're about an inch long, grayish black in color, and appear to "stand guard" over their holes. What are they and how do I get rid of them naturally?
    ---Chuck in Binghamton, NY
Hey Garden Guru! I've been distressed by the news of the demise of large populations of bees in the US and wanted to know if it would be helpful for gardeners to do something like provide skeps (primitive bee hives) in their backyards, like a bird feeder or bat house. I'm not interested in making honey, just helping our little pollinators.
    ---'Babs' in McLean, VA
Answer. What a nice thought, Babs! But while many people have come to think of the domesticated honeybees that have been in the news recently as 'our little pollinators', those honeybees are native to Europe, not North America. "Our bees" are the ones that those other listeners want to wipe out!

The ground-nesting bees that appear in Spring, the sweat bees that vie for a taste of our salt in the summer and the big bumblebees that always seem to be buzzing around are just a few of the thousands of kinds of native bees we are blessed with. These are the bees home gardeners should encourage if they want the kind of pollination that will make a noticeable difference in the numbers of flowers and fruits their personal plants produce.

Now, if you happen to 'bee' or live near a beekeeper (or an old tree occupied by an escaped feral colony) you might well 'bee' visited by honeybees. Otherwise, it isn't likely; the vast majority of these highly social creatures are trapped in an industry that often resembles factory farming more than a sylvan landscape. Trucked across the country in large numbers of hives piled on top of each other, they are released to pollinate vast commercial crop fields and then move on with the season. It's no wonder that disease, mites, and now a mystery ailment is decimating their numbers; they're crowded together in stressful situations and exposed to pesticide residues at almost every stop.

That makes it more important than ever for homeowners to encourage—or at least not actively destroy—native bees. As Pollination Ecologist Neal Williams, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at Bryn Mawr College notes, there are 3500 species of native bees in North America, all of which pollinate something in the landscape.

The ground-nesting bees active at this time of year "do a lot of tree work", explains Dr. Williams (this of course includes those magnificent flowering cherries, fruit trees, dogwoods and other floriferous Springtime wonders). He says that the little dark bees in that New York lawn are likely one of the Andrenas. Another common Springtime ground-nester, he adds, is the wonderfully named "polyester bee", so called because the females line their holes with a waterproof substance that mimics that well-known artificial fabric (scientists call these bees the "Colletes").

These ground-nesters often have people reaching for the Raid, because:

  1. Despite their being 'solitary bees' (one to a nesting hole, please!), thousands can congregate on the same site. And
  2. People often judge them to be "aggressive" because they'll fly menacingly towards folks who seem to be threatening their nests.
But they are harmless. The males don't even have stingers, and the females would have to be grabbed before they'd use theirs. Same for the big bumblebees that show up later in the season; they are wonderful, harmless creatures, that, explains Dr. Williams, "pollinate just about everything that's in bloom when they're around."

So please put away the need to forcibly dominate your environment if you are lucky enough to have ground-nesters in your yard right now. As ephemeral as Spring bulbs, they will soon be gone for the season. If you don't want them to return, improve the lawn in that area (they only nest in ratty, low cut, poorly-cared for turf) or spread some mulch, there in the Fall if they're nesting in bare ground.

Same with bumblebees and all the other native bees; they will simply NOT sting you. Honeybees, on the other hand, might well sting you—although that's more likely to happen when they're walked on by someone in bare feet. The biggest cause of so-called "bees stings" are the much more aggressive members of the wasp family, especially yellow-jackets, which also nest in the ground, but only in late summer. If you see a ground hive at THAT time of year, you have my permission to take action. See THIS PREVIOUS QUESTION OF THE WEEK for your non-toxic yellow-jacket eradication options. But again, they are not active until late summer; ground nesters in the Spring are harmless native bees. Honest.


If you want to do more, Dr. Williams advocates a 'no till' system, where garden soil isn't disturbed year after year (as in the raised bed system we are always advocating); and leaving little 'set aside' areas where weeds are allowed to grow. "Anything that produces pollen and nectar will attract native bees," he says. "People always want to make houses and things for them, but I explain that it's more like Field of Dreams; if you grow it, they will come."

If you want them to come in big numbers, grow some of the pollinator-friendly plants recommended by the "Friends of the National Arboretum" in Washington, DC ( FONA holds an annual plant sale to benefit the Arboretum, and created this year's special category in honor of the upcoming "National Pollinator Week". (That plant sale is at the Arboretum on Saturday April 28th; leftovers on Sunday.)

That's right: National Pollinator Week; they're gonna get their own special postage stamp and everything! We first heard about this from a listener; Beatriz in Willow Grove, PA, who wrote, "you often speak about the importance of native pollinators. The US Senate and Department of Agriculture have declared the last week in June National Pollinator Week. Its very exciting; I've been studying and photographing pollinators for years!"

How ironic that this tribute begins the same year many of us will remember as the season the honeybees crashed. You can erase some of that irony by tolerating any gentle, productive native bees that find their way to your place. After all, they tolerate us—and without them, it would be a world without flowers. Oh, and if your native bee population includes nesting carpenter bees, read THIS PREVIOUS QUESTION OF THE WEEK for tips on how to co-exist safely with these great pollinators (and more on Springtime ground nesters too!).


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