Sunday, June 13, 2010

Moments of Magic and Solitary Bees, Part 1

The Secret Garden by MACHADOANA

When I was a child some of my most magical moments were had in a backyard garden. Back in the days when the climate was not as harsh (and for those of you who don't think our climate is harsher, all I can say is ask a gardener and get an earful) we used to grow roses and cornflowers and bee balm here in South Florida. While I ought to own up to the fact that some of my least magical moments were had in a garden (weeding has to be one of my least favorite things ever and it's one of the best reasons to have children and the best alternative to corporal punishment of a child you didn't hear that from me) I have magical memories of our garden and bees. Which is rather ironic because I'm actually allergic to bees. (Thelma Lee is reading this and wondering what I'm not allergic to and GlamKitty is reading this and thinking I better quit it with the parentheticals and my mother will read this and wonder why I didn't mention the Weed Fairy, who I am sure follows behind "weeding me" and drops little weeds behind my back to taunt me when I turn around to look back over my weeded beds.)

My childhood introduction to solitary bees looked much like this:
(Image credit: Christine Farmer and you have to check out her blog!)

Those are old-fashioned roses which don't do very well in South Florida, where we are so very hot and humid and have no real freeze that lasts in the winter. We just grew the regular floribunda varieties but the blooms aren't really the point at all. Look at those leaves! At the neat and precise little circles cut out of them. As a very vocal and curious nine year old I knew two things. If I couldn't be Elizabeth I (hard because she was dead) and I couldn't be Mad Laurie from Thomasina (I was told I was Irish and not Scottish and that if I brought home one more pet that I was getting in serious trouble) then I wanted to be Mary Lennox in her Secret Garden. The second thing was that there was something messing with our (my) roses! 

My mother really encouraged scientific me. She told me to observe and figure it out. Being nine, I put on my hat, moved my lounge chair over near the rose beds, sipped grape Koolaid and promptly got distracted that hot summer afternoon. But eventually, one day while helping to deadhead (I was very proud when I was finally allowed to deadhead) I saw something rather amazing. What I saw was very much like this:

Leafcutter bee snipping a piece from a rose leaf
(Image credit: Shirley Woods)

My mystery was solved! The perfect little circles were from Leafcutter bees and after I pulled out an encyclopedia and read the small amount of information about them, I decided that they were allowed to take bits of leaf because they used them to build their nests.

Leafcutter bees are among the solitary bees. Solitary bees are a different species of bee from the common Honeybee. They do not make honey or beeswax and most importantly they are not susceptible to Varroa mites, a very serious threat to Honeybees. Solitary bees are very important pollinators. In fact Orchard Mason bees are solitary and got their name precisely because they are orchard pollinators. Solitary bees are a crucial component of fruit production in the US, Canada and Japan. They rely on building nests rather than hives and they pack their nests with things like plant debris and pieces of leaves.

Orchard Mason Bee on an Apple Blossom
Red58bill, Wikimedia Commons

If you live in an area with Orchard Mason bees or Leafcutter bees, you can provide them with a home by offering structures packed with little tubes. Gardner's Supply has a very pretty one made of bamboo, but you can make your own, too. Christine Farmer's solitary bee page is a revelation and her artwork is simply exquisite. You'd probably be doing a whole lot better with your Sunday if you quit reading my blog and went over to Christine's pages to check out her garden's Leafcutter bee housing and her gallery of beautiful drawings.

      Mason Bee House, Gardener's Supply                         Nesting Tubes, Christine Farmer

In developing this post, I found this delightful video, Leafcutter Bees of Hell's Kitchen, by Helen B. Kennedy of NYC, of Leafcutter bees collecting lilac leaves for nesting. I hope that Helen knows how valuable and endangered bees are becoming. Let's hope those solitary Leafcutters continue to show up to enjoy her lilacs!

I'll have a more facts-based post on solitary bees later this week. It was Sunday after all, and I wanted to write something relaxing, filled with beauty and to distract from all the... all.

Until then, enjoy your Sunday and remember, even in Hell's Kitchen you can be Bee friendly.... Encourage your local bees! If you can have happy bees in Manhattan, you can wherever you are, too!

Karen Strickler

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

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