Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Posted by Kate at 11:07 AM
With the arrival of intermittent spring weather, I've been very busy lately. The outdoor projects have begun in earnest and my hands and forearms are feeling the strain of that work. Typing doesn't help much. So excuse the recent lack of posting.
But here's something I wanted to write about: nest boxes for native bees. My husband made one of these a few years ago and put it up on our shed. We've already observed that the sealing walls constructed by mason bees last year have been dismantled, and a new generation of bees is checking out the nest holes for deposits of eggs. So early in the year! It seems there's so little in bloom yet for them to feed on, but the warmth has them up and about. The nest box consists of a block of wood with deeply drilled holes in various sizes. They serve as shelter for the eggs of several kinds of bee.
We have a huge three-bay garage that came with the house. Its footprint is larger than the house itself. It's great for storing all kinds of stuff pulled out of dumpsters and projects in progress, which means it gets packed to the point of becoming unnavigable. On rainy days I've been working to triage some of the ungodly mess that has piled up in there over the last six months. I found a short length of 4x4 post and decided to turn it into more nest boxes for native bees. Small pieces of scrap wood furnished roofs to keep off the worst of the rain. These will be mounted on the scaffolding for our solar array. I'm sure they will soon be fully occupied.
Our foray into keeping honey bees last year resulted in unmitigated failure. Our longest surviving colony didn't make it through the winter. We're going to try again this year, and we hope that we'll have more success with some hard lessons under our belts. Seeing the help our efforts provide to native bees offers some consolation. These bees are under the same environmental stresses as honey bees. The human race cannot afford to lose the free services of pollinator insect species, and bees are preeminent in this work. As it turns out, some of our native bees are even more effective pollinators than honey bees. Keeping honey bees requires a significant commitment of time, labor and monetary outlay. It took me all of two hours to build these two native bee nest boxes at almost no expense whatsoever. I paid for four screws, a tiny bit of silicone sealer (leftover from energy efficiency improvements for our home) and the electricity to run a power drill. My work for the native bees ends the moment these bee boxes are mounted.
I mentioned recently how last year there was a sense of my garden and homestead finally beginning to come together. If anything, that feeling is increasing this year. When we bought this house the backyard was a monoculture of open lawn, with a border of conventional, uninspired landscaping. Now it's stocked with dozens and dozens of perennial plants, and we grow a wide variety of annual vegetables there every year, both of which supply food and habitat for numerous insects, which in turn provide food to birds and other wildlife. That's biodiversity that simply wasn't there before. Putting up these boxes for the bees is another effort towards that cause. It's the inter-species connections on this tiny piece of land that are going to make what we do here sustainable over the long term. I'm convinced that every additional species I can encourage is a strength for my homestead. I don't even know exactly what these native bees are doing here. I'm sure they venture off my property as much as they conduct their business on it. But they are a knot in the living tapestry I am making of this place. I want them here. With some scrap materials and a couple hours of labor it's easy enough for me to make this place attractive to them for decades to come.
One way of looking at this is as a token gesture of atonement for the environmental damage my actions have caused, and continue to cause; a tiny way to give back to the world that supports me. Seen another way, it's self interest. Monocultures are fragile things. By encouraging as much biodiversity as possible, I get more resilience, healthier soil, lower pest pressures, better pollination of our fruits and vegetables, and less work for me. That's what I'm talking about when I say things are coming together.
If you're interested in helping populations of native bees, you could build your own bee boxes. You could even salvage the materials from a dumpster on a construction site, thus diverting useful stuff from a landfill and saving yourself some money. For guidance on this simple project, check out this fact sheet (pdf) from the Xerces Society, a wildlife conservation organization. On their website you can also find lists (tailored to each region of the US) of beneficial plants to for native bees, including many edible plants.