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The Buzz 101: All Your Bee Questions, Answered!

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, Communications
with Erin Sullivan, Entomologist

Does it get any cuter than a fuzzy, gentle mason bee? Photo by nutmeg66 via Flickr.
To celebrate Pollinator Week 2019 (June 17-23), we asked you to send us the questions you've always wanted to know about bees. Below are just some of the bee questions we have received from across our social media platforms. Our in-househive bee expert, Erin Sullivan, entomologist and collection manager, gives us the answers we've been searching for—when it comes to our buzziest pollinators.

Q: What is the best type of hive box design for honeybees and bumblebees?

Erin: When it comes to creating a good habitat for bees in your backyard, the most important thing to begin with is looking at what's already in your garden. That means paying attention to the types of bees that frequent your yard. The bee hive or box is just the beginning. Creating a suitable habitat for bees means looking at basics, such as food, shelter and water. Does your garden have flowers blooming throughout the summer or just in the early spring? Do you have plenty of water sources (bees don't need a ton, just a shallow pool of water with a few stones placed inside for easy access)? What about shelter? The species of bee you want to attract will dictate what typeof bee box to build or purchase. Many native species of bees prefer a simple shelter to a box, a few dead logs or a little woodpile will do just fine, while honeybees prefer more structure. Washington has a whopping 13 species of bumblebees, but there are also 600 species of native bees living in our state. Native bees don't get as much notoriety as honey bees or bumblebees, but they are just as amazing and all of them are terrific pollinators.

There are some great resources for anyone looking to make suitable habitat for bees in the Pacific Northwest. The Xerxes Society or the Puget Sound Bee Keepers Society are terrific places to start.

A tiny Air Bee'n'Bee? Photo by George Grinsted via Flickr
Q: I've seen bees in my yard that have golden balls on their hind legs. Is that pollen they've collected?

Erin: It is! You can see pollen baskets on hind legs, but look closer, can you see pollen collecting anywhere else? Some native bees carry pollen on their abdomen.

Photo by Satriver via Flickr
Q: Bees vs wasps vs yellow jackets, etc. What’s the difference and are you sure I can’t kill yellow jackets? They are jerks and I’m not sure they are as awesome as bees.

Erin: All wasps, yellow jackets and hornets are of the order, Hymenoptera, the family Vespidae or paper wasps, since their homes are made of a paper structure (think hornet nest). They are typically social in nature and are usually considered pests in the neighborhood, however, wasps play an ecological role as predators. There is reason wasps are attracted to your BBQ, they are after protein. The good news is that they often prey on pest insects, so that's a plus. When they build nests near your house, it's best to leave them alone, or call in the pros if you need to remove a troublesome nest. While honey bees tend to colonize the same place for many years, wasps typically don't return the next year.

Q: Do bees have personalities?

Bees have bee-onalities! While it's hard to speak to individual behaviors, each species of bee has unique characteristics unique to their kind. Mason bees are solitary and are fantastic pollinators because of the somewhat chaotic way they seem to land on flowers, spreading pollen all around in a "messy eater" sort of way. Honeybees on the other hand are social, and collect pollen in a very organized manner. Spend a little time watching any bee and you'll soon see the similarities and differences in species.

Photo of a bumblebee on a thistle by Joe via Flickr. 
Q: I’ve heard mason bees are better pollinators than honey bees. If so, what makes them different/special?

Erin: Mason bees are really great for blossoming trees. Mason bees have a shorter season than other bees, so springtime is their wheelhouse. Tomatoes and raspberries on the other hand need bumblebees to pollinate them. Blackberries utilize a variety of pollinators. Every species has a huge job, so all pollinators are important depending on what is being pollinated. Honey bees are extremely important for crops such as blueberries, almonds and cherries.

Q: What are some of the best native plants for bees to enjoy in the PNW?

Erin: My favorite is snowberry, but there are so many great options to choose from. Check out our go-to PNW pollinator plant guide or check out the informational signs in the Microsoft Pollinator Patio.

Photo of snowberry by Brent Miller via Flickr.
Q: Can you talk about the importance of different bees? Bees used for honey vs pollinating bees.

Erin: Diversity of pollinators is incredibly important. A tomato farmer must have bumblebees around. A beekeeper collecting honey? They're going to need honey bees! When it comes to your garden, native bees are really the best, not only because they are built for pollinating native plants, but also because they really need our help. Native bees don't get a lot of press, but they do need food and your garden is the perfect spot for them.

Bumblebees are usually the first bees you'll see foraging in late winter through the summer until late fall, they need a variety of blooming plants to keep them fed. 

Hey honey bee! Photo by Stanze via Flickr
Q: Why do they like to go to the water? I've been able to save a few from our kids' splashy pools but is there anything else we can do to deter them, aside from draining daily?

Erin: Bees (and other insects) get thirsty just like us! If you have just one water source, in this case the pool, it will be hard to detract bees from trying to drink there and mistakenly ending up in the water, but try putting out a few water sources in other areas of your yard. Shallow dishes or shallow pots with some large pebbles or rocks in them create welcoming little water holes for bees, plus it's a great project to build a "bee beach" with your kids.

Q: Is harvesting honey and beeswax harmful for bees?

Erin: As long as the beekeeper is thinking about the entire life cycle of the colony and practicing sustainable bee keeping, collecting surplus honey from a colony is just fine. In fact, supporting local beekeepers is great for the species. There are so many fantastic local resources for anyone who is curious, and it's a really great thing to support local honey-collectors such as Ballard Bee Company.

Q: How can I support bees in my own yard? I find them fascinating and love watching them find the nectar in each different flower.

Erin: The best thing you can do for bees is to think about plant variety, water and shelter. When choosing plants, pick some that bloom earlier in the year like Oregon grape or primrose, as well as mid-summer bloomers like snowberry or bluebeard and then make sure you have plants that will bloom into autumn too, like yarrow, honeysuckle and cosmos. Providing a variety in bloom time and species will give your garden interest both for you and the pollinators in your hood.

A sweat bee up to her knees in pollen. Photo by Dan Mullen via Flickr.
Q: I have a ton of bee-friendly flowers in my garden and don’t use pesticides. What else can I do to help our local bees thrive? What about on a bigger scale?

Erin: That is wonderful to hear. You know, when it comes to creatures like bees, people really can make a huge impact with very small gestures. Think about how many pollinators will benefit by planting just a few garden boxes on a patio! Thinking about small changes in your yard has a big effect on pollinators. In addition to planting pollinator-friendly gardens and not using pesticides or chemical herbicides in your yard, there are many ways to support a healthy pollinator community: 

A leafcutter bee dives in for a little snack. Photo by Michael Klotz via Flickr.
Are bees becoming endangered? And if so, what can we do to help?

There are over 20,000 species of bees in the world. Many species of bees in the United States have been lowering in numbers, and while it does not mean they are listed as endangered yet, it's not a good trend. The only U.S.bees listed as endangered right now are seven species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees. There are quite a few threats to bees including climate change, pesticide use and habitat loss being the most prominent. The good news is that all of these threats can be addressed—which means we can work together to reverse their effects on bees and other pollinators.

A gorgeous pollinator-friendly garden in mid-August. Photo by Sara Morris via Flickr.
Bonus question: Do bees like jazz?

Erin: Some bees probably like jazz, some bees probably don't. If you like jazz, then you should definitely play it for your bees ;)

Thank you Erin, for all of your answers and great advice for a bee-friendly world! And thank you to everyone who submitted questions during Pollinator Week. Keep the love for pollinators going all summer and visit us at Molbak's Butterfly Garden and Microsoft Pollinator Patio!