EVANSVILLE — When someone mentions something about bees, the first thing many think of are honeybees, which have received a lot of press in recent years due to their decline.
But there are nearly 3,600 species of native bees in the U.S. and almost 25,000 different species globally, and these native bees are the powerhouses pollinating plants all over the planet.
“One out of every three bites of food we eat, we have to thank a pollinator for,” said Karin Jokela, a partner biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service. “And 85 percent of flowering plants need an animal — usually an insect — and usually a bee.”
Native bee habitats are being threatened in many ways, and while habitat loss is the most noticeable and actionable threat, pesticide use, disease from the movement of non-native bees, competition when resources are scarce, changes in climate and the emergence of invasive species are all threats to native bee habitats.
Creating pollinator habitats perfect for native bees, as well as other pollinators such as butterflies, moths, flies, beetles and wasps, was the reason 16 people with a wide variety of experiences and interests gathered Aug. 30 at the Cooksville Community Center. The workshop, aimed at farmers and landowners looking to create pollinator habitat on their properties, was presented by Friends of Silverwood Park with a grant from the John A. Johnson Environment Fund and the Madison Community Foundation.
Jokela, who also works with the Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization focused on the conservation of invertebrates, had lots of excellent information to share with attendees, who were sure to leave the workshop with ideas on how to bring native bees and pollinators to areas of their property. Many resources are available to download for free at https://xerces.org.
While there are many pollinators that are beneficial to our lands, “bees are the most important and the most efficient,” Jokela said. Bees are special animals — they can transport and collect pollen in pouches and on hairs on their bodies, and they consume pollen and nectar at all stages of their lives.
Jokela explained there are three groups of native bees: ground nesting bees, stem/tunnel nesting bees and bumble bees. Seventy percent of native bees are ground nesting while 30 percent are stem/tunnel nesting. Only one percent of native bees are bumble bees.
Ground nesters go underground, building nests in sandy to loam soils, Jokela said. Stem nesters usually use hollow stems or other hollow areas to “reuse a nest,” she said. Bumble bees nest in tall grasses, straw mulch and pine needles.
Understanding bees and their needs allows landowners to create habitats to recruit a diversity in bees, which not only benefits the native bee populations, but also all the wildlife that live in the habitats.
When planning these pollinator habitats, there are three steps to consider in the process. First, landowners must recognize the existing habitat, assessing what the land already offers. Then, the landowner must take a closer look at the habitat, looking for any deficiencies they may want to address. Lastly, the landowner must prioritize what habitat improvements they’d like to make to the land.
By looking at the deficiencies, landowners will be able to target improvements or enhancements they may want to make. Jokela recommended going online to reference a pollinator habitat assessment guide, available on the Xerces website. This guide allows the landowner to rank their habitat, whether they are incorporating it into a farm, a natural area or specifically to attract one type of pollinator.
Jokela asked participants to think of habitat features they could incorporate into their land. Flowering hedgerows are a plant to incorporate as they flower in early spring, attracting pollinators that may be looking for resources at a time there may not be many available. These hedgerows can be planted along farm roads and field borders.
Cover crops, if allowed to flower, are a great habitat for pollinators. They serve as a short-term floral resource and have other benefits to a farmer as well. Landowners may also want to incorporate “beetle banks” or insectary strips — typically grasses planted within a crop field or garden to provide habitat for insects.
If landowners have a large space they may want to covert into pollinator habitat, they may want to consider enrolling into the Conservation Reserve Program through the USDA Farm Service Agency. This may take a little more planning and be a bigger investment, but there are benefits to both the landowner and all the animals that will be living in the habitat.
Once a landowner establishes a pollinator habitat, it’s important to protect that habitat, especially those near crop fields, from pesticides and fertilizers. It may be helpful to plant a barrier in between these spaces; Jokela suggested bunch grasses, conifers or other non-flowering plants that would not draw pollinators to them.
The most effective way to protect habitat is to talk to your neighbors about your plans, Jokela said.