An aptly named  leafcutter bee, a species of native bee, carries a leaf.

An aptly named leafcutter bee, a species of native bee, carries a leaf.

Photo provided by Sue Hudnut


Experts address how to bolster bees at home

By: Sarah Wojcik | C&G Newspapers | Published May 8, 2019

 A structure known as a bee house or bee hotel helps to foster native stem-nesting bee species. They are a simple craft to make, or homeowners can purchase them online.

A structure known as a bee house or bee hotel helps to foster native stem-nesting bee species. They are a simple craft to make, or homeowners can purchase them online.

Photo provided by Sue Hudnut

 Planting native species, such as those in this pollinator-friendly garden, and avoiding pesticides are ways to promote local bee activity.

Planting native species, such as those in this pollinator-friendly garden, and avoiding pesticides are ways to promote local bee activity.

Photo provided by Sue Hudnut

METRO DETROIT — Bees are important. But not everyone knows why, or how we can make a difference.

Some local beekeepers and experts weighed in on how relevant bees are to each of our lives, and also how we can foster them to continue to reap the benefits they add to the ecosystem.

“Bees provide the bulk of the pollination for all of our fruits and vegetables, which is important globally, but also really important for Michigan because we produce a wide variety of specialty crops,” Michigan State University academic specialist Meghan Milbrath said. “They also provide the pollination for our native ecosystems. The vast majority of those plants depend on pollinators in general, and bees in particular.”

While non-native honeybees, which originated in Europe, are the top agricultural pollinator, there are more than 400 species of native bees in Michigan and more than 4,000 species of native bees in the U.S. that also play an important role.

Honeybees thrive in hives, while most species of native bees live solitary lives and find refuge in the ground, in hollow stems or in rotted wood.

A simple way to help native bees is to make or buy a native bee house for stem-nesting bees, such as leafcutter and mason bees.

Sue Hudnut, a member of the Southeastern Michigan Beekeepers Association who manages an urban garden for the Greening of Detroit, said native bee houses or hotels, as they’re called, are helpful because native bees can only fly about 500 feet, while honeybees can fly for more than 3 miles.

Bees, which are gentle and nonaggressive, often get a bad rap, Milbrath said, because they are blamed for the defensive behavior of wasps and yellow jackets, which are not bees and are the ones that show up at picnics.

“Bees are very not likely to sting people when they are out foraging,” she said. “Our native bees are so pretty. There are so many, and they come in everything from metallic green to black and white, with all these different behaviors.”

In order to provide the most beneficial habitat for bees, Milbrath recommended planting a diversity of flowers, shrubs and trees, specifically those native to the state. Sprawling, manicured lawns with evergreens, for example, are a detriment to bee populations, she said.

“It’s important to have a wide variety (of plantings) to basically give the bees a complete diet and to have food all season long, with things blooming from spring to fall,” she said. “Nectar is their source of carbohydrates, and pollen is their source of protein and micronutrients.”

Many types of hybrid plants, she said, are bred for looks and are not best for bees.

Milbrath said native flowering trees and shrubs provide the most bang for the buck in terms of the number of blooms in a small location.

“Planting basswood trees, converting a quarter-acre to a pollinator habitat or adding a row of sumac (are all helpful),” she said. “The loss of flowers in (a) landscape is so profound.”

Hudnut added that other options include black-eyed Susan and coneflower.

“Right now, the willow and the maple trees are all in bloom, where bees can really power up on a lot of pollen and nectar,” Hudnut said. “The mason bee, primarily a fruit tree type of bee, is out now in early spring, and then they are gone, and then summer bees like leafcutter bees are out in June, July and August.”

One of the largest threats to bees is pesticides. Other threats include pathogens, habitat destruction and varroa mites, which are particularly deadly parasites that feed on honeybees and spread viruses to other honeybees and hives.

“We recommend not spraying unless you absolutely need to spray, and to do it at night and make sure it’s not on flowers,” Milbrath said.

Eugene Makovec, editor of American Bee Journal, said honeybee pollination affects 1 in 3 bites of food Americans eat and was worth about $435 million to U.S. agriculture in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Honeybees produce about 150 million pounds of honey annually, worth about $300 million to the U.S. economy, plus beeswax.

He said the number of managed honeybee hives has been steadily rising over the past decade, with 2018 estimates clocking in at approximately 2.8 million hives, thanks to an increasing demand for pollination and an influx of new hobbyists.

Makovec called on homeowners to call off the war on “weeds” and counted dandelions and clover among important food sources for bees and other pollinators.

He said it is a myth that “if the bees die, we die,” and that bees are endangered.

“Bees pollinate many of the foods that make us happier and healthier (fruits, nuts, berries, many vegetables), but we would not starve without them,” he wrote in an email. “While there are individual bee species that are in trouble, honeybees are not.”

While all beekeepers themselves, Milbrath, Hudnut and Makovec stressed that beekeeping is a complicated hobby and to take a workshop, join a club, find a mentor and research before starting a beehive.

“Jumping into this on your own is like jumping off the high dive with a plan to learn to swim after you hit the water,” Makovec said. “My favorite thing about bees is they are always teaching me. It’s like going to college for life, without the final exams.”

Milbrath recommended a five-hour free online course through MSU called Pollinator Champions, which provides a wealth of knowledge and resources. Once certified, participants can give talks and help spread the word.

To take the course or for more information about pollinator planting, native bee habitats, native bee houses and more, visit www.pollinators.msu.edu.

For more information about beekeeping, visit www.americanbeejournal.com.

 


Here’s the buzz!

From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, June 22, the Greening of Detroit and the Honeybee Conservancy will host a BeeBlitz event at Lafayette Greens, an urban garden in downtown Detroit, in conjunction with National Pollinator Week (June 17-23).

A BeeBlitz is a way for citizen scientists to monitor bee populations and assess the well-being of bees by photographing and recording as many bee species as possible in a particular area.

To participate, visit iNaturalist.org or download the app from the App Store or Google Play, sign in and upload the bee photos you take.

Lafayette Greens is located at 132 W. Lafayette Blvd. For more information, visit www.thehoneybeeconservancy.org/beeblitz.