A bee is not just a bee when you start really looking at it.
Most people know of the classic honey bee and the fuzzy, somewhat adorable bumble bee, but in Colorado alone there are more than 900 species of this pollinator.
“I think most people, when they first start learning about bees, are blown away about how diverse they are,” said Adrian Carper of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department at the University of Colorado.
The last official count noted 946 types of bees, most native and solitary — meaning they don’t have giant hives buzzing with activity nor do they make honey. Instead, many of the bees found in Colorado set up nests in old logs or piles of leaves, and the majority live underground.
Here are ways to promote these pollinators in your own garden and yard, and what to look for when seeking them out. And don’t be afraid to get close: Many don’t sting, and as long as you don’t touch them, the bees will leave you alone so you can observe each other in harmony.
Support native bees
Building a bee house is a good way to have native pollinators move in, said Lisa Mason, a horticulture agent for Arapahoe County’s Colorado State University Extension. She suggested making it at home using simple natural tubes (not plastic, since the material doesn’t breathe and can mold) that are at least 6 inches long, such as paper straws or hollow twigs and plant stems, and place them into a terracotta planter or any container that has a solid back. Or, take a chunk of untreated wood and drill 6 inch holes into one side.
“All pollinators need food, shelter, water and space, just like we all do,” said Mason. “Just keep in mind that different types of bees prefer different types of holes.”
Once the bee house is done, hang it 4 to 5 feet off the ground, somewhere secure where it won’t move around, and facing southeast to get the morning sun. The bees will do the rest and plug up the holes with mud or leaves after the larva are laid. Then, after a season, it’s good to clean them out for the next bee family to move in.
Also, try to leave part of your yard unkempt, suggested Sonya Anderson, a horticulture specialist at the Denver Botanic Gardens. This method fits in with the trend toward rewilding spaces, something many people have started doing in their own backyards. This involves leaving sections to nature, be that weeds, organically sowed plants, dirt, decaying wood and little to no landscaping.
“When you’re cleaning up in your garden and pruning back branches, leave some in the garden, even if you move it to another place,” said Anderson. “It’s important to leave a little mess, because that’s where the bees nest.”
Mason added that planting wildflowers, clover and pollen-rich flowers in spaces of the yard where the grass isn’t being used for child’s play, dogs, sports or recreation is a good way to promote bees while utilizing a yard to its full potential.
“The majority of native bees nest in the dirt where the ground is exposed, sunny and open,” said Anderson. “That’s important when gardening. Don’t use landscaping fabric, mulch or anything in these spots.”
When planning a pollinator-friendly environment, keep in mind that bees need water, too. Placing ways to get water, even if it’s a dish that collects rain and run-off water or a birdbath, can be highly beneficial.
Most important, said Carper, is to nix pesticides. Instead, he suggested using organic methods like releasing ladybugs, praying mantis and lace wings to take care of the vegetable-garden eating bugs. Or seek out treatments that are bee safe.
“You don’t want to put toxins on the plants that need bees to pollinate them,” he said. “If you manage your garden without pesticides and if you provide a natural habitat, you will create a garden that is more sustainable and you will attract more bees.”
Flowers to promote pollinators
Both native and non-native flowers are good for all types of bees; just make sure there’s enough of these plants in spring, summer and fall.
“You want to provide food throughout the entire season, which is easy to do in summer, but make sure you’re including spring and fall as well,” said Anderson. “It’s trickier to find the early season things, but it’s really important, as they are emerging from the winter and they need a lot of food.”
For spring plants, she recommends pasqueflowers, one of the first bloomers of the season accessible to a wide range of bees. Creeping Oregon grape is a low-growing shrub with an early-season bloom that Anderson said does well in Colorado. Classic tulips are great, too, as long as they are species tulips, which are less hybridized and have more food for the bees on them. Also look for Basket-of-Gold, an ornamental plant in the mustard family.
“In general, honey bees are generalists, meaning they will pollinate pretty much anything, but the native bees are little more selective and some are specialists,” said Anderson. “If you cover native bees, you will cover honey bees as well.”
Summer proves easier when it comes to food for bees. Anderson lists off echinacea or coneflower, black-eyed Susans, poppies, Rocky Mountain bee plant and moon carrot, a non-native plant that brings a large diversity of bees and therefore works well in the garden. Penstemon, or beardtongue plant, she said, is a fantastic flower to have since it evolved along with native pollinators. She also mentioned milkweed, a plant that can overtake a space but is nectar rich and great not only for the bees, but a staple for monarch butterflies as well.
Once the summer blooms start dwindling, it’s time for fall blossoms to take over the feeding of the bees. Anderson recommends some of her favorites including asters, iron weed and salvia, a perennial sage plant.
Wildflowers in general also bring the bees to the yard. Just keep in mind, warned Anderson, most of the wildflower seed mixes have non-native and invasive plant seed in them. When buying the pre-made packets, look at what’s inside. Check out native mixes from local seed provider Botanical Interests out of Broomfield or Western Native Seed in Coaldale.
Types of bees
With close to 1,000 species of bees buzzing about Colorado, we don’t have room to list them all here. But we’ll mention some of the more common bees — other than honey bees, which were introduced to North America in the 1600s.
“Bees are really crazy diverse and fascinating critters,” said Carper. “In Colorado, we are one of the most diverse, beat out only by California, Texas and Utah, which are bigger and have been studied more.”
In Denver County alone, he said, there are about 150 different species of bees buzzing around. Many are quite tiny, measuring a quarter-of-an-inch long. Others, like sweat bees, look almost like a small wasp and may land on you in the garden to drink your salty sweat.
These insects are either solitary, social or parasitic. Social bees are the category the seven species of honey bee falls into, and they like nests with a lot of activity and joint raising of the larva. Solitary bees make up around 70% of this insect population and create small nests in rotting wood, dirt, hay bales, park benches, and really any space where there’s a secured spot to raise five to seven larva.
The bee many see on flowers is the male Agapostemon Sweat Bee, which has a bright, iridescent green head and thorax (the middle body part), and a stripped butt. These bees make nests in the dirt or mud. They do sting, and since they kind of look like a fly thanks to that coloring, make sure you don’t swat them away.
The Two-Spotted Longhorn Bee is large and fuzzy like a bumble bee, but almost all black save for white-yellow fur on its legs. Those are the female bees; the male has a very long antennae used to attract mates. It’s also called a sunflower bee, because it’s partial to sunflowers.
If you’re growing squash and zucchini in the garden, look out for the squash bees, a medium-sized insect that can look brownish but has black and white stripes on the bottom and a fluffy yellow “vest” on the thorax. These bees only gather pollen from squash blossoms, which is larger than other pollens and not all pollinators can harvest and spread it.
Traces of leafcutter bees can be seen on roses and other thick-leafed plants that have semicircles cut out around the edge. It looks a lot like a kid took a hole puncher to the leaves but just used it around the edge. Also keep an eye out for the wool carter bee that is pale brown or black and covered in white hairs. It looks furry, as if it’s carrying around bits of wool on its body.
Finally the parasitic bee, which isn’t as scary as it sounds. These bees sometimes lay eggs in another bee colony and let the insects in that hive take care of her young. They also can reap the benefits of another bee’s work when it comes to resources such as food and shelter.
“Actually, a good healthy parasitic population of bees is indicative of a good population of pollinating bees,” said Carper, likening the insect to a cowbird, which lays eggs in other species of birds’ nests.
Locally, this type of bee includes the Sphecodes species, a red and black bee shaped more like a wasp; cuckoo leaf cutter bee, part of the Coelioxys species; the genus Nomada, which looks a lot like a yellow jacket; and many more all over the state.
How to find out more
Carper recommends finding out more about bees in your area with the books “Our Native Bees” by Paige Embry and “Bees In Your Backyard: A Guide to North American Bees,” by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia J. Messinger Carril. He suggested becoming a citizen scientist and downloading the app iNaturalist to help catalog and keep track of bees around the home.
There’s also the upcoming Colorado Pollinator Summit on Nov. 5. Details on this digital event and website will be announced soon.
This content was originally published here.