June 22, 2018

Solitary Bees

In celebration of National Pollinator Week, I want to shine a spotlight on the solitary bee.  As a beekeeper, I tend to focus my attention on the honey bee, however, solitary bees also play an important role in our ecosystem, and they only get a fraction of the credit.

What are solitary bees?

According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, 90% of native bees in Texas are solitary bees.  Unlike "social" bees that live in a colony with thousands of other bees working together -- each with a specific job, like feeding the bee larvae, gathering food, removing dead bees, guarding the entrance (I like to call these nurse bees, foragers, undertakers, and bouncers, respectively) -- solitary bees live alone and tackle every job personally, building their own nests, collecting their own food, and raising their own babies.


Because they're so busy doing everything, they're quite docile and rarely sting, unless grabbed.  They don't defend their nests the way that social bees (like honeybees) and wasps do, so it's safe to put up a homemade bee house near your home or patio (or take a peek inside one) without fear of attack.  If solitary bees sting, they die, which leaves nobody to care for their babies (bay-bees?), so they will usually buzz off or hide instead of stinging.  (Sidenote: Really, what's the point of having protection if you have to die when you use it?  Hm...)

Beneficial bug house I built for a workshop.


Most solitary bees nest in small holes in the ground, and you can help them out by leaving a well-drained, sunny portion of your flower bed free of mulch and vegetation.  Other types of solitary bees nest in "deadwood", which is a fancy name of a piece of wood that is dead and rotting on the ground.  If you don't have anything like this, you can create one with a block of untreated wood and a drill.  The Native Plant Society of Texas has some good tips on that here.
but some build their nests in other things, like rotting wood stumps.

I spotted a native bee nesting inside this hole in my flower bed.

Why are solitary bees important?

Solitary bees play a big role in pollination, some might even argue a bigger role than honey bees, and just like honeybees, their populations have been declining in recent years due to diminishing habitat (think big open spaces full of wildflowers).  Honey bees get more credit for pollination because they're responsible for pollinating 30% of our food, however, native bees (honey bees aren't native to the US) pollinate 80% of flowering plants worldwide (source).  It's estimated that the financial impact of native bees on US agriculture is around $3 billion a year (source), and unlike honeybees that are usually housed inside expensive hives, native bees do the work for free, as long as there is adequate habitat nearby.

This unidentified solitary bee was spotted visiting cosmos in my vegetable garden.

How can I tell the difference between a bee and a wasp or yellow jacket?

Here's a quick Q/A to help determine if you're looking at a bee vs a wasp or yellow jacket.

- Is it fuzzy?

Bees are fuzzy.  Some are fuzzier than others.  Yellow jackets can be fuzzy, too.
If its body is bald, it's definitely not a bee.

- What shape is its abdomen?

The tip of wasp and yellow jacket abdomens (the largest section of their bodies) come to a sharp point where the stinger would be.  Bees abdomens don't have a sharp point at the end.

What can you do to help solitary bees?

  1. Plant flowers. 
    Natives are best, but you can't go wrong with anything that is daisy shaped (think sunflowers, coneflowers) or closely related to mint (think salvia, catnip, lantana, basil, rosemary, etc.)  Variety is good and will be inviting to a variety of native bees and other pollinators.
  2. Provide water.
    A shallow dish filled with water and marbles or stones provides a safe landing place for many types of pollinators to get a drink.
  3. Provide nesting habitat.
    Leave a well-drained, sunny portion of your flower bed free of mulch and vegetation for ground nesting solitary bees, and provide deadwood for deadwood nesting bees.  You can also buy or build a beneficial bug house.
  4. Go organic.
    Adopt an "integrated pest management" approach to your gardening, meaning you prevent the problems you can by choosing the right plants, planting them in the correct location, using good watering practices, etc, and if you absolutely must treat a problem, choose the least toxic method that will be effective.  More details about that on my blog "What's the Best Natural Pesticide to Use in My Garden?"
  5. Learn and educate others.
    We all know people that "nuke" their yard with pesticides at the first sign of bugs or leaf spots, and while that might seem like the easiest way, it's not usually the best way.  If you know a natural solution, share that information with someone who could use it. 
    Harmless native bees are often mistaken for wasps or yellow jackets, and they're treated accordingly.  Learn what you can to avoid misidentifying them, and again, share.

Additional resources

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center searchable database that you can use to select plants that are bee/pollinator friendly.

Native Plant Society of Texas article about native bees, with information about creating habitat and building a pollinator house.

Texas Parks and Wildlife article detailing solitary bees versus social bees.

United States Geological Survey article about native bees with statistics about native bee impact.

Do you have a gardening question?  You can ask in the comments below, or on Facebook or Instagram.Follow along for more helpful gardening tips, tricks, and how-to's.

#asktheplantchick #theplantchick #gardeningdemystified

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