Bees are our Friends

Martie Young
Adams County Master Gardener

We must make friends with bees if we are to continue to have food that in large part is pollinated by bees. Our farmland is constantly being reduced by housing developments but our farm production has risen over the decades because of better methods of farming. Bees are part of that improvement in farming methods, and Master Gardeners are helping with the science of finding out where the bees are and what plants they like to feed on.

The only bees that live in hives and are social are honey bees, which are not native but are European honey bees. These bees are the ones we are most familiar with but there are many different solitary bees—bees that hatch from eggs in hollow stems or holes in the ground and these are also important to pollination; in fact, they often take over when honey bees are scarce. Bumble bees and carpenter bees are also important for pollination and sometimes they are as plentiful as honey bees.

We know these facts about the various kinds of bees through research, and the Penn State Master Gardeners in Adams County and in most of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania are engaged in this project. We count bees. The process is a little more complicated than that 3-word sentence. York County Extension has put this program into place and we report to them.

For the past three years a two-person team has observed a certain set of flowering perennials to determine which ones attract the most bees and also what kinds of bees they attract. One person counts and the other person records; once a week we meet and record the temperature, wind conditions, time of observation, and sky conditions. It is probably no surprise that we see more bees on a clear, calm day with temps above 60 degrees. Our next step is to identify the bees we are seeing: honey bees are usually not a challenge, bumble bees are very furry and slower to move, carpenter bees have a very shiny (non-hairy) abdomen which is easy to distinguish from the bumble bee. There are several other types of bees that we identify and record: the green sweat bee, digger bee, leaf-cutter bee, and small carpenter bee. We have very good pictures that highlight the identifying marks and even if we can’t identify a specific bee we can record it as a bee that is actually pollinating a flower, not just an insect that is flying past. At the end of the flowering season, we send all our results to York County Master Gardeners where the results are tabulated along with other counties. Starting in early spring, we prepare for the next round of counting bees.

The pollination process means that the bee goes to a flower and burrows to the bottom of the flower and with his/her proboscis (tongue) sips the nectar that the flower provides (the flower is enticing the bee). During this process, the bee collects pollen on her furry body which she then carries back to the hive or young bees for food. Since bees stay in a small area to collect nectar and pollen from many flowers in the same area, the pollen they carry is transferred to other flowers that are nearby. This transfer of pollen is called pollination or fertilization. Picture an apple tree covered with flowers—if there are no bees to pollinate most of those flowers, there will be no apples with seeds to continue the process.

The flowers that we monitored for the past three years were Physostegia or obedient plant, Agastache or Hyssop (Blue Fortune, Golden Jubilee, and Black Adder), and Helenium or Sneezeweed (Moorheim Beauty, Mardi Gras, and the straight species). The best plant for pollinators was all varieties of Agastache. All these plants are readily available to the public.

If you are a gardener you may want to contribute to this endeavor by planting native varieties of all plants and choosing native perennials and annuals to encourage bees to come and stay in your gardens. Plant in drifts of the same flower, provide water and sunny spots for the insects to rest and provide flowering plants for as much as the year as possible starting with bulbs and witch hazel in the spring and ending in the fall with goldenrod and asters. Take note of the fact that in our three years of monitoring, none of us have been stung—the bees are busy with the flowers!

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