After helping my dad with his honeybees as a child, and keeping honeybees myself for twenty years, I am done with that chapter of my life. But once a beekeeper, always a beekeeper. The time that I once spent in the apiary I am now devoting to our native bees.
The good: Native bees tend to be non-stinging and are excellent pollinators.
The bad: Native bees don’t produce honey.
The ugly: Native bees are becoming endangered at an alarming rate.
Native bees evolved with native flowers, and do an excellent job pollinating both wildflowers and garden plants. The vast expanse of corn fields and lawns that dominate the landscape provide no place for native bees to live, raise young, or feed. Caring for native bees isn’t as intensive as keeping honeybees, but it still involves a bit of thought and time.
Tidy gardens can yield nectar and pollen, but lack the crevices and hollow stems native bees need for refuge and rearing their young. If you also want to be a native beekeeper, and already have a native prairie patch planted, consider adding a native pollinator nest box. Depending on your crafting skills and your scrap wood pile, they can be handmade.
There are now also a variety of native bee boxes for sale, as well as removable nest tubes that provide a few key benefits. After the queens fill the tubes during the growing season, you can put them in your freezer until the following spring. This 1) protects the larvae from being eaten by woodpeckers and parasitic wasps; 2) can be timed to release the larvae in the spring to match when you need pollination and 3) prevents bacteria, viruses, and mold from building up in the tubes, as you can inspect and replace them as they need to be replaced.
Pollinator nest tubes for mason bees should be 5/16″ diameter. Pollinator nest tubes for leaf cutter bees should be 1/4″ diameter. If you are drilling your own holes, drill them 6″ long. Native bees already in your area will move in right away, and as the population expands, you can add more homes in future years.