By Adrienne Rosenberg
Native bee on Helianthus annuas or common sunflower.
The most common question I get after telling people about my work studying and creating habitat for native bees is, “Do you think I should get bees to help with the pollinator crises?” Even though I too have experienced the unique and enchanting relationship of maintaining honey bees, I respectfully reply, “No.” While used as livestock to pollinate many human consumed foods, honey bees are not native to North America and are not at risk of extinction. Apis meliffera, like other livestock, are bred and can be ordered from across the world.
Native bees, on the other hand, have coevolved in an intricate and fascinating relationship with our landscapes and are indeed in decline, with some species at risk of extinction. Degradation and fragmentation of habitat are two main causes of this decline. Although honey bees serve the ecological function of pollination, they are not necessarily the most efficient pollinators of various plant species, and their large, perennial colonies are elbowing out other native pollinators. In short, we can’t save the bees by buying honey bees. Rather, we can put our energy towards the fifth Healthy Soil Principle of “Integrating Animals” by creating robust and self-sustaining habitat that incorporates the three pillars of shelter, food, and safety.
Of the around 3,600 native bee species in North America, New Mexico has around 1,000 species making us one of the most diverse states in the U.S. Surprisingly, 70% of native bees nest in the ground while 30% nest in cavities. Some researchers hypothesize that our New Mexican alkaline, sandy soils invite a variety of species. Although bees prefer a neighborhood that we humans may consider unkempt, we can optimize real estate with a few tips.
Male bees congregated on blanket flower.
- “Leave the leaves.” This slogan, developed by the Xerces Society, encourages home and landowners to allow a layer of leaves (not too thick) on the ground from fall until late spring. Not only does the litter replenish the soil biota and continue the nutrient cycle, but it provides overwintering refuge for bumble bee queens.
- Keep pithy/hollow stems. These stems provide perfect material for some cavity nesting bees to lay their eggs. Bees often need many months to develop from egg to an emerging adult, so keeping stems is important for the completion of their full lifecycle. In the spring, you can clip the stem out of the garden after the apples blossom as most bees will emerge by this time. If you cannot keep them erect in your garden for the winter, consider clipping stems close to the ground and standing them against the north side of a shed or in a neat pile.
- Maintain bare space. Allow for large patches of bare ground. Many ground nesting bees prefer open soil in which they can tunnel into and lay their eggs. For example, Diadasia spp. often nest in large aggregations in dirt roads. Although bare soil is not in line with the Healthy Soil Principles, it can be a part of your design while other spaces are covered by plants.
- Practice no-till or low till. Yes, just like the soil microorganisms which prefer minimal soil disturbance, ground nesting bees also need undisturbed soil.
Perhaps the most gratifying part bee habitat, planting flowers provides bees with their primary source of nutrition in most stages of life—nectar and pollen. When considering what to plant and where, I advise people to watch their land for a for a growing season or two. Practicing the Healthy Soil Principle “Knowing Your Context” can allow for you to work intimately with the land and not against it. Strategize what sort of irrigation will need to take place. Remember, just because seeds and plants are native, they still need water to establish and maintain themselves in very dry periods. Strategic planting follows a few guidelines that fit nicely with the Healthy Soil Principle of “Maximizing Biodiversity.”
Mexican hat (Ratibida columnifera) is an excellent annual native pollinator plant.
- Select diverse flowers that bloom from spring to fall. Loss of plant diversity is a huge cause of native bee decline. Not all bees are attracted to the same flowering species and 30 50% of bees are highly specialized. Having a variety of sources that also vary in structure, color, and bloom time will allow for a delectable smorgasbord. Make sure to plant more than one individual flower per species.
- Plant perennials and annuals. Perennials like trees and shrubs are often the first to bloom in spring when forage is scarce. Hedgerows and pollinator strips can provide both food and shelter for bees along with a windbreak. Reseeding annuals can have exponential results. The plant materials can also provide a nice mulch after their lifecycle is complete.
- Prioritize native plants. Native bees have coevolved with many native plants in your region and selecting appropriate plants can be a major boon, but its ok not to be a purist and weave in non-natives as long as they aren’t invasive. Cover crops are a great way to establish habitat and suppress weeds before or alongside planting native seeds or plants. Plants of the Southwest and Pawnee Butte have great regional seed mixes. Don’t forget to include appropriate grasses.
Maybe the least obvious pillar, safety is extraordinarily important to native bees. Native bees can be protected by considering a few points.
- Buy Pollinator-Friendly Pest Managed Seeds and Plants. Unfortunately, most big box stores and many nurseries sell neonic coated seeds and neonic- treated plants. Neonicotinoids and other systemic pesticides contaminate nectar and pollen causing sublethal impacts. Furthermore, neonics are absorbed in to the soil and linger where bees nest and winter.
- Connect the habitat. Habitat fragmentation is an issue for many animals worldwide. Although native bees do not migrate, they need space to expand their population and diversify their genetics. If you have a small plot of land, consider teaming up with your neighbors to provide contiguous habitat to prevent isolation.
- Reduce invasive species. Some invasive species can change the plant community in an area and even dry out soils leading to habitat loss. Contact your local extension agency or use NMSU’s weed database to understand the impacts of various invasives. Sometimes smothering invasives with a cover crop will provide flowering plants and fulfill Healthy Soil Principles.
- Invite over import. To-order bees, bumbles and honey bees, can spread disease to existing native populations. So invite existing bees to your oasis.
Building a safe, cozy, and delicious space for native bees will invite all sorts of pollinators and beneficial insects to your land. And for those who are still pondering honey bees, I suggest planting substantial habitat first as it will benefit all pollinators, and then creating a log hive. Examples of log hives can be found at Apis Arborea; they require little maintenance and mimic the more natural hives of honey bees, which may contribute to healthier colonies and genetic diversity.
In the next article, I will explain how to create pollinator habitat, protect acequia water rights, and enhance soil by using no-till seed drilling coupled with Keyline Plowing.
Client property after creating pollinator habitat. All images by Adrienne Rosenberg
Adrienne Rosenberg explores all things restoration, in particular concerning native bees. She received her forestry degree from New Mexico Highlands University in 2022. She has worked for bee scientist and author of “The Bees in Your Backyard” Dr. Oliva Caril. In 2022, she attended Rocky Mountain Bio Lab and worked in Dr. Becky Irwin’s lab researching the impacts of climate change on native bees. She is receiving her certification from the Pollinator Steward Program and has created pollinator habitat around Northern New Mexico through her business Woven Web Design. Adrienne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org