Won’t you help a single, working mom?

by Dave Kollen

Ninety percent of our bees, like the one shown, are solitary. This means that after they emerge as adults (any time from early spring through fall) they find a suitable mate, take care of business, and then go about the hard work of being a single mom.
Bee life is hard under the best of circumstances. Their short, typically three-to-four-week lifespans are times of frenzied activity. After mating, the first order of business is finding a nest site.
Roughly two-thirds of solitary bees are ground-nesters, while the others choose cavities of various types. What these two categories of bees have in common is the imperative to pass on their genes to the next generation.
Ground nesting bees require a patch of exposed soil with a sunny, preferably southern exposure. The area doesn’t have to be very large. A square foot can support a half-dozen or more small Mining Bees.
Given a bit of real estate, they go to work excavating an entrance tunnel and then one or more brood cells, depending on the species. To appreciate just how hard this is, imagine that a half-inch long bee with a six-inch deep tunnel is equivalent to us digging down more than 50 feet!
As often as I’ve looked, there’s never been a bee shovel around. Everything is done with bee legs digging and then bee butts pushing up a load of soil as they move backwards up the tunnel – and all this in pitch darkness.
Cavity nesting bees in general are probably not working quite as hard, especially if they find something ready-made like beetle tunnels. Other times they might have to chew out the interior of a plant stem to prepare for creating brood cells.
On average, solitary bees will create one brood cell per day, maybe 20 total, over their short lives. Each cell will require four to five pollen-gathering trips. Generally, the distance bees will travel to find pollen depends on their size. Most will forage within one-half mile, although the smallest may only travel 50 feet or less from their nests.
With sufficient pollen on hand, they will create a pollen ball and then lay a single egg on it before closing the cell. They will repeat this process over and over, basically working themselves to death if they are lucky enough to avoid becoming a meal for a hungry predator.
Knowing the challenges faced by these bees, the question we should all be asking ourselves is: “what can we do to help?” Luckily this isn’t too hard.
An obvious need is flowers – nectar to fuel their work and pollen to provision their brood cells. Since bees can emerge any time from early spring through fall, flowers need to span that time period.
Another need is nest sites. As stated above, a little bare ground and plants with pithy stems is a start. You can also make or purchase bee blocks.
The final item is pesticides. Try to eliminate or minimize their use. There are surprisingly many ways that bees or their babies can be accidently poisoned.
Try to do what you can for these tireless moms. Remember, every little bit helps. Questions? Feel free to contact the author at PNWBeevangelist@gmail.com or check out BringBackthePollinators.org