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The Pollinator Connection: Be safe, bee home

by Kristina Lefever for the Tidings April 3, 2020 ~

Having a home, no matter the species, is so important — a home you know is always there, fits your size and your lifestyle, and keeps you and your family safe.

Safe homes are vitally important for pollinators too, and there are many reasons their homes are disappearing. With decades of pesticide use in gardens, yards, farm fields, forests, roadsides and waterways, compounded by unending urban and rural development with human-made structures, lawns, sports fields, pavement, 24-hour lighting and more, plus invasive species (plants and insects), and a changing climate affecting which plants grow where and when, it’s hard for insects, birds and other mammals to find and keep a safe home.

What if in our desire to provide homes, we make it worse? Did you know that mason bees and leaf cutter bees need nests of at least 6 inches in length? Otherwise, the female (mom) will not lay eggs of both genders. It’s hard to continue a species without females. Because not only can the mom control the gender of her offspring, she lays in order by gender. In a 6-inch-long tube, mom will first lay three or four female (fertilized) eggs, followed by two or three male (unfertilized) eggs. If the length is much shorter than 6 inches, she will lay only males. And the boys will not be happy campers when they emerge the following spring.

The purpose behind this incredible pattern is two-fold: the males serve as protection — hopefully pests and birds will spare the females after taking out the males at the front end. And the males (laid last, remember), emerge first, so they can be ready for their girlfriends. They will mate, the females will lay her eggs, die, and the eggs will transform into adult bees throughout the year, emerging the following spring to start the cycle all over again.

So do us all a favor — when you see those cute little bee houses for sale, check the length. Size does matter. Please advise the store manager why you aren’t purchasing them, and ask that they be returned. Here’s a shout out to Marshalls in Medford. After being informed by our friend Michael that their cute little houses were barely 3 inches deep, and why that mattered, the houses were pulled.

Most other bee species, including bumblebees, nest in the ground, often under bushes or in untended areas. Please garden, especially now, but be aware that creating that beautiful vision for your landscape could actually be uprooting the next generation of bees and other pollinators who nest or overwinter in the soil, under rocks and leaves, on and in plant stalks, or on tree branches. Remember that 97% of insects are beneficial, and “good” or “bad,” they are an important food source for other creatures.

Here is a small but critical example. Butterflies, also rapidly disappearing, come from caterpillars. Fewer caterpillars mean fewer birds. One clutch of chickadees requires about 9,000 caterpillars to fledge. How many yards do you know with 9,000 caterpillars? Not mine.

For more about how native plants support native insects, I highly recommend googling University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy. I guarantee you will never look at your landscapes the same again.

Want to help provide homes for the tiniest among us? It’s easy. Plant native plants, don’t use pesticides (herbicides, insecticides or fungicides), and maintain untended areas that go through their annual cycle without much interference, providing habitat and food for insects and other creatures. The last crop of flowers that aren’t deadheaded become seeds to feed the birds in late winter. (Finches love lettuce and echinacea seed.) Native grasses provide places for bumblebees to nest, and for beetles and spiders to hide (both are great predators). Dry and sunny unmulched bare spots welcome the many species of solitary ground-nesting bees. No worries — most solitary bees don’t even have stingers.

More and more people are planting native plants for our native pollinators. A list of local native plant sources we know about can be found at

Pollinator Project Rogue Valley and Beyond Toxics have transformed the frontscape at our office in Phoenix from 100% non-native plants to 75% or more native. Tiny plants are growing, and we eagerly await the flowers of coyote mint, Oregon sunshine, phacelia, oceanspray, penstemon, buckwheat and more. Even when the only plants blooming were non-native heathers, we were amazed to discover queens of three species of bumblebees gathering pollen and nectar to take back to their nests for their babies. Safe homes, we hope.

Kristina Lefever is a member of Pollinator Project Rogue Valley and Bee City USA Ashland, and a board member of Beyond Toxics. She can be reached at The Pollinator Connection appears quarterly.


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