By Carol Merrill
Bees and other essential pollinators contribute $18-$27 billion to the U.S. food economy per year. They are responsible for an estimated one out of every three bites of food. That makes them essential for our human resilience. Recently, New Mexico beekeepers reported a 50 percent loss of European bees from “colony collapse.” That leaves much pollination up to our native bees. What did the bears do for honey before the European bees showed up a few hundred years ago?
Bee maven Anita Amstutz writes passionately on her website Think Like a Bee, “Bees are part of our tribe. We need them for food, beauty, poetry and soul wisdom.” See https://thinklikeabee.org/ Anita is well-respected in the large community of urban bee keepers. She calls herself a “bee tender.” Recently, in a Zoom presentation for a Bachechi Open Space Saturday Speaker Workshop she gave details about native bees that form 70 percent of the bee population in New Mexico. They have evolved mouth parts that are exactly adapted to the native plants in our zone.
Native bees can often fill the “pollination gap” when the honeybees are scarce according to Extension Services. Many people are interested in cultivating flowering plants that will sustain these essential native bees and other beneficial insects. There are 1,500 species of native bees. Most of them, unlike the honey bee, are either solitary meaning they nest and grow their young alone or form small colonies. See the Pocket Guide to Native Bees of New Mexico , a 30- page item online from NMSU. https://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/bees/welcome.html
Amstutz states eloquently that during COVID times, “I have become much more aware of the word ‘frontline’ or ‘essential’ workers. Wild and managed bees, as the workhorses of the pollinator world, are exactly that. It was a lightbulb going off in my head when I put two and two together, realizing finally, that if frontline, bee-essential workers aren’t protected, the food web of life will fail. We will all be malnourished, sick or worse. Our food system will be dismembered bit by bit if we are not vigilant about protecting bees.”
One book released this March by Adventure Publications tells us what two-legged folks can do to welcome bees. George Miller wrote much of what you need to know in Native Plant Gardening for Birds, Bees and Butterflies: Southwest. His article in the Native Plant Society of New Mexico Newsletter 2021, spring issue: April-June is a good synopsis of his conclusions. See Page 8 for good photographs and plenty of good information in this newsletter: https://www.npsnm.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/ABQ-Newsletter-Spring-2021-final.pdf
Miller writes, “Your backyard needs more than flowers to welcome bees. Of the more than 1,500 species of bees in the Southwest, about 70 percent, more than 1,000 species, nest in ground burrows. Almost all of the rest nest in preexisting holes or tunnels they find in twigs, stems, bark, rocks, or abandoned beetle tunnels. Bumblebees, the only hive nesting bee in North America besides domestic honey bees, build shoe-box sized nests in dark rock crevices, hollow trunks, brush and rock piles and animal burrows.”
Miller says the native bees emerge at the bloom time of their preferred flowers. A good gardener will leave nesting zones that are not very manicured to provide space for the natives. Only two percent of the insects in untended wild areas are undesirable. All the rest are essential to our healthy ecosystem. He continues, “Females look for sunny south or east-facing locations and carefully excavate their tunnel.
“Bees have been observed to burrow in hard-packed dirt roadsides and driveways, between pavers, on garden walkways, around the cleared base of shrubs and flowers and in open spaces between plants. The excavations vary from one-fourth- to one-half-inch wide and might be mistaken for ant nests. Plan your garden design to include ample bare ground to support nesting bees, and avoid mulches, weed fabric, and regular watering in nesting areas.”
There are nest blocks for native bees at Wild Birds Unlimited. These nests are wood drilled with different sized holes to supplement the natural nesting places need by various native bees. Some bees make homes in rock cavities. For them an adobe brick will do for a bee hotel. NMSU provides a list of tasty flowers to sustain these important pollinators during different seasons.
Native willows (e.g., Salix lasiolepis and S. irrorata), skunkbush sumac (Rhus trilobata), American plum (Prunus americana), New Mexico olive (Forestiera pubescens), chokecherry (Prunus virginiana).
Summer-flowering annuals: Prairie sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris), Rocky Mountain beeplant (Cleome serrulata), Blue-headed gilia (Gilia capitata), golden crownbeard (Verbesina encelioides), basil (Ocimum basilicum).
Summer-flowering perennials: Firewheel/blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella), red dome blanket flower (Gaillardia pinnatifida), whorled mountain mint (Pycnanthemum verticillatum), white prairie clover (Dalea candida), stiff greenthread (Thelesperma filifolium), catmint (Nepeta cataria), showy goldeneye (Heliomeris multiflora), Mexican hat (Ratibida columnifera), fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium).
Late summer- and autumn-flowering species:
Globemallows (Sphaeralcea species), Emory’s baccharis (Baccharis emoryi) (especially male plants), sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), native goldenrods (Solidago nemoralis, S. petiolaris, and S. speciosa).