The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Nesting habitat for native bees

Stem bundle bee nestThe second requirement of native bees is nest sites --- spots for the insects to raise their young.  About 70% of American native bees are ground nesters, which dig (or take over) holes in the soil, while the other 30% are tunnel nesters that primarily nest in abandoned beetle burrows in stumps and snags.  Keep your eyes open and protect any nest sites you see, then you can choose whether to make additional habitat for bees to move into.

Ground nesting bees require undisturbed, bare soil, preferably sandy or loamy and always unmulched.  If they had their druthers, most would choose a south-facing slope in full sun (or with afternoon shade) so that they can warm up quickly first thing in the morning.  Constructing ground nesting habitat can be as simple as laying down a kill mulch on a small patch of ground, then raking back the organic matter in the spring to leave bare soil for the bees.

Wood block bee nestTunnel nesting bees are the ones gardeners often build habitat for.  If you have a dead tree somewhere that's not going to crush your house, leave it in place (and maybe drill some extra holes in the trunk) and bees will naturally move in.  You can plant elderberries, raspberries, blackberries, or sumac since some bee species hollow out the pith in the center of these plants' dead branches to create nest tunnels.  Or you can make designated nest boxes out of a block of wood, bundles of weeds or bamboo stems, or adobe blocks --- I'll give specifics in Weekend Homesteader: March (and will probably post about some of my experiments sooner), or you can download this fact sheet from the Xerces Society.

Bumblebee nestFinally, bumblebees require a special set of nesting conditions --- a warm, dry place near or under the ground about the size of a shoe box.  You can build (or buy) nest boxes, but the authors of Attracting Native Pollinators report that only about a quarter of these boxes get lived in.  A simpler approach is to let grass grow up in an out-of-the-way spot; when it falls over in the winter, mice will move in and build nests, then bumblebees will take over in the spring.  Alternatively, you can make piles of brush or stone that create similar cavities.

With the exception of bumblebees, most native bees won't bother you even if you walk close to their nests, so feel free to create habitat right outside your kitchen window.  Isn't a bee nest box more fun to watch than a bird feeder?

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This post is part of our Attracting Native Pollinators lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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