Silly Bees

Every year, solitary carpenter bees make themselves at home in our wood window casings. I can see their little bee butts working away in there. The question is, what to do about it?

bees, urban gardening, conservation

A window casing hole still plugged with growing bees.
Photo: PKR

Now, I admit, the drainage holes in the windows look mighty inviting. But because the windows open and shut, any growing bees are at risk of getting crushed before they can mature.

I really don’t mind sharing parts of our home with other creatures, and at the end of the season, the remains of the nests and pollen are easy enough to clean away. I know people don’t like the fact that these bees can burrow into wood – but after all, the casing holes are already there, and the bees don’t do any real damage.(It’s indicative of how these bees are viewed that most of the images of carpenter bees that I found were from pest extermination services – it took me a while to find one that wasn’t.)

Still, even our window sill haven is not a particularly safe solution for the bees.

The nests are intricate constructions of single cells for each single egg, with partitioned walls and a lovely supply of pollen for each egg to get a good start.

A solitary bee nest.
Image: All You Need Is Biology

Quite impressive, as long as they’re situated in a good spot.

bees, urban gardening, conservation

A vacated nest. I saw one of the new bees emerging from this spot yesterday.
Photo: PKR

Bees of various species are struggling in our corner of France, as elsewhere. If these bees are, as I suspect, Osmia cornuta – a solitary European orchard bee that pollinates fruit trees – then they are not yet considered endangered. But they are in decline in France, retreating to places with less pesticide use. In any case, this year in the spirit of conservation, I set up alternative bee houses with holes of a similar size in front of the favorite window sills.

What did the bees do? They chose the other casings that didn’t feature any manufactured wood homes. So until they’ve all left the nests, we’ll be opening and closing the windows very carefully.

Silly bees.

Next year, I’ll have to try harder to entice them to other nesting spots.

bees, conservation, orchard bees, burrowing

Solitary orchard bees burrow into someone else’s window casing.
Image: Lamiot via Wikipedia

 

Carpenter Flight

I opened my office window the other day to find a row of tiny earthen mounds, little bubbles separated by straight walls. I thought it was an odd collection of dirt that had blown in through the small ventilation hole in the wooden frame. Or maybe a small ant colony, since we get a variety of ants on the out of our old stone house. They like the vines, and we don’t mind the ecosystem of insect, bird and reptile life those vines support – including the ants. As long as they don’t come inside.

A dazed carpenter bee, covered in pollen, in the nest it was building in my office windowsill.

A dazed carpenter bee, covered in pollen, in the nest it was building in my office windowsill.

I started to scrape out the mounds with a pen, only to uncover a dozy bee blanketed in┬árich yellow pollen. The mounds were a nest for the small carpenter bee, a solitary, wild pollinator known for boring holes in soft woods. Of course, this was a small variety of carpenter bee, and she had fit right into the ready-made ventilation holes at the base of our window frames. The bee shook itself and then flew off. When it didn’t return after a few days, I cleaned out the nest.

The bee flew off after a moment, abandoning the nest. Each cell had its own ball of pollen, which would have fed one individual bee.

The bee flew off after a moment, abandoning the nest. Each cell had its own ball of pollen, which would have fed one individual bee.

Carpenter bees are important wild pollinators, and many farmers encourage their presence even if, like me, they don’t necessarily welcome their nests in the structure of homes.

Another common carpenter bee in our area looks like a giant black bumblebee – harmless, heavy, loud and a bit dopey. I saw this one while out running, happily mining sweet pea blossoms for nectar.

I found this big carpenter bee on some sweet peas outside. It was very photo shy, flying off whenever I aimed my camera, returning when I looked away.

This big carpenter bee was very photo shy, flying off whenever I aimed my phone camera, returning when I looked away.

Then we found two lifeless bees in our garden. No visible damage, just not alive any more. Bodies intact, it’s like they just stopped flying and died.

The United States has announced the creation of a USD 8 million-funded ‘honey bee task force‘ to examine why the U.S. honey bee population has been in severe decline since 2006. We could quibble as to why a pollinator that is necessary for the reproduction of many U.S. food crops and adds an estimated USD 15 billion to the economy (according to the U.S. White House blog) hasn’t deserved a task force of its own for years already. Or I could muse upon the minuscule investment being made in the honey bee in comparison to its overall economic value, not to mention its environmental impact.

I could mention the recent reports showing that neonicotinoid pesticides in use around the world have been conclusively linked with honey bee declines, which might explain why these pesticides are currently banned in the European Union.

These pesticides are now considered to carry the same level of environmental and health danger as the notorious dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT. Those who argue in favor of neonicotinoid use point to the increase in the use of older pesticides in their place.

Or I could shake my head at articles, almost invariably found in business publications that cite industry-funded studies, that refute connections between neonicotinoids and bee decline in favor of an array of other causes, most of them not linked to large corporations nor to the global multi-billion dollar industry that neonics support. The producing companies are never mentioned by name (for the record, they’re Monsanto, Bayer and CropScience).

Carpenter bees: The violet-blue of their wings is dazzling.

Carpenter bees: The violet-blue of their wings is dazzling.

What I can say is this: Few studies examine the effects of these pesticides on the decline in wild pollinators like the bumblebee, or the carpenter bee. The much-touted, lately-arrived U.S. task force will not be studying these issues either (not that the funding would be sufficient for that, in any case). Nor do I see a task force anywhere on the more judicious and limited use of pesticides in favor of best practice techniques.

So this year, I’ll be putting out a few havens for carpenter bees and planting a few more flowers that they like. And this year, as every year, I won’t be spraying any pesticides in my garden.