Ruth Correll: Native bees: Partners with farmers

Ruth Correll • May 23, 2017 at 4:26 PM

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service website, “three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce. More than 3,500 species of native bees help increase crop yields. Some scientists estimate that one out of every three bites of food we eat exists because of animal pollinators like bees, butterflies and moths, birds and bats, and beetles and other insects.”

These beneficial insects visit many flowers in their search for food, which is nectar and pollen. During the visit, a pollinator deposits pollen collected from a different flower and the plant then uses the pollen to produce a fruit or seed. Many plants cannot reproduce without pollen from another flower.

We are very aware of the importance of honeybees, but another group of bees known as native bees are also very valuable crop pollinators. “The more than 3,500 species of native bees, sometimes called pollen bees, help increase crop yields and may serve as important insurance when cultivated European honey bees are limited.”

How can farmers help to protect and bolster the native bee population? There are some simple and inexpensive ways you can increase the number of native bees living on your land. Helping the native bees will also support other beneficial insects and wildlife. 

First, know the habitat on your farm. Look for areas on and around your land that can support native bees. Most native bees are solitary or live in small colonies. Bumble, digger, and sweat bees make up the bulk of pollen bees in most parts of the country. Protect flowering plants and nest sites. Once you know where bees are living and foraging, do what you can to protect these resources from disturbance and pesticides.

Second, enhance their habitat by adding desirable flowering plants and adding preferred nest sites. Most bees love sun and prefer to nest in dry places. Nests are created underground, in twigs and debris, and in dead trees or branches. You can add flowers, leave some ground untilled, and provide bee blocks, which are tunnels drilled into wood.  This will increase the number of native bees on your farm.

Third, learn about the basic requirements of native bees. Bees are like all other living creatures.  They have basic needs in order to survive. They need food? Bees eat only pollen and nectar. In the process of gathering these resources, they move pollen from one flower to another, and thus pollinate your crops. Bees rely on an abundance and variety of flowers and need blooming plants throughout the growing season. Native plant species are particularly valuable.

Native bees don’t build the wax or paper structures we associate with honeybees or wasps, but they do need shelter. They need places to nest, which vary depending on the species. Wood-nesting bees are solitary, often making individual nests in beetle tunnels in standing dead trees. Ground-nesting bees include solitary species that construct nest tunnels under the ground. Cavity-nesting social species such as bumble bees, make use of small spaces, such as abandoned rodent burrows, wherever they can find them.

Most insecticides are deadly to bees. If you use insecticides, choose ingredients targeted to specific species and the least harmful formulations such as granules or solutions. Spray on calm, dry evenings, soon after dark when bees are not active. Keep in mind that even when crops are not in bloom, some of your best pollinators are visiting nearby flowers, where they may be killed by drifting chemicals.

What else can farmers do? Many of our best crop pollinators live underground for most of the year, sometimes at the base of the very plants they pollinate. To protect them use tillage only where you need to.  Allow crops to bolt and flower. This gives bees additional food sources. 

According to Henry David Thoreau “…even the insects in my path are not loafers, but have their special errands.”  

For more information, contact the UT-TSU Extension Office in Wilson County at 615-444-9584. You can also find us on Facebook or visit extension.tennessee.edu/wilson.

Through its mission of research, teaching and extension, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture touches lives and provides Real. Life. Solutions. ag.tennessee.edu. Ruth Correll, UT Extension-TSU Cooperative Extension agent in Wilson County, may be reached at 615-444-9584 or [email protected].


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