Earth Week Day 2: Pollinators!

When you think of pollinators, what do you imagine? Most of us think of the honey bee, but there’s more to the story. Montana is home to hundreds of species of pollinators, including 450 species of identified native bees (although it’s expected that there are close to 1000 species of native bees, they just haven’t been identified yet!), honey bees, wasps, moths, bats, butterflies, beetles, flies, birds, and other mammals. While all these insects and animals are important, bees, both native and honey bees, provide the vast majority of pollination services. By carrying pollen between flowers and trees of the same species, they allow plants to produce seeds, nuts, and fruits. Many of these fruits are things we enjoy on a day -to-day basis (apples, strawberries, almonds & blueberries to name a few). Crops that are grown here in our valley also rely on bees — alfalfa, sainfoin, and most fruit trees. In the US and Canada, there are over 3,600 species of native bees in addition to honey bees. It is important we acknowledge and learn about both native and honey bees as they are essential in our ecosystems!

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So, who are pollinators and why are they important?

Bring Back the Pollinators

Bees and other pollinators are critical for food production and sustaining the world’s natural ecosystems. In this introductory video, learn about the lives …

The Buzz About Honey Bees

Our own Big Sky Watershed Corps member, London, is a beekeeper. This video was taken at her home in Maine, as her and her family take inventory of their hives!

Across the US, there are commercial beekeepers and hobbyist beekeepers. Commercial beekeepers use their bees to pollinate crops like almonds, alfalfa, and to produce honey. Hobbyist beekeepers usually have many fewer hives and keep bees for all sorts of reasons. Bees are fascinating creatures; they can be incredibly tame, even though we associate bees with stinging. Honey bees only sting when agitated because when they sting, they die. Wasps, on the other hand can sting as many times as they want. Honey bees live in a colony with a queen as their leader. Honey bee hives are incredibly complex and organized with 60,000 individuals acting as one unit! If we haven’t already convinced you bees are cool, check this out:

15 Fascinating Facts About Honey Bees (thoughtco.com)

Day in the life of a forager honey bee…

Honey Bees Make Honey … and Bread? | Deep Look

Honey bees make honey from nectar to fuel their flight – and our sweet tooth. But they also need pollen for protein. So they trap, brush and pack it into bas…

One of the life stages of a honey bee is a forager. Forager bees are responsible for collecting pollen and nectar for the hive and will travel up to 2 miles to find food!

Did you know that bees “dance”?

Honey bee waggle dancing

This video was made as part of HokieBugFest 2017.When a honey bee forager finds a good resource – usually nectar or pollen – she can communicate the location…

Forager bees are constantly on the hunt for sources of pollen and nectar. When one bee finds a good source of food, they communicate that to the rest of the hive with a “dance”. The waggle dance tells other bees two things: the distance and direction food is away from the hive. Learn more here: Bee Waggle Dance (asu.edu)

Types of bees you find in a honey bee hive:

In a hive, you will find three types of bees: workers, drones, and a queen. Worker bees are all female and play all sorts of roles including nurse and forager. Drones are the male bees that mate with the queen. Each hive has one queen that is responsible for laying thousands of eggs and she looks distinctly different than everyone else! Can you spot her in this video?

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What About Native Bees?

Montana relies on hundreds of species of native bees to pollinate plants and crops, especially native plants. Native bees evolved alongside Montana’s native plants, making them the best adapted and most effective pollinators for native plants. Unlike honey bees, many of these species are solitary, meaning they don’t live in hives. They nest in the ground, burrow into wood, or even piles of leafy debris.

Check out this guide that includes many native species in Montana courtesy of Montana State University! MTBeeGuide_MSUBozeman.pdf

For more info on native bees and the wildflowers they pollinate, check out the Native Wildflower and Bees of Western Montana guide by the US Department of Agriculture and the US Forest Service: NativeWildflowersBeesWesternMontana.pdf (fs.fed.us)

This guide pairs wildflowers with bee species likely to pollinate them, although many bees are likely to visit all types of flowers. For example, Montana’s state flower, bitterroot, has an important relationship with mining bees.

Courtesy of USDA & USFS

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So, what’s a “bee house” and how do they help native bees?

One thing we can do to help native bees is create places for them to nest. An example of this is building a “bee house”! There are many types of bee houses, but we’ve linked a few here:

DIY Mason Bee House to Help Save Pollinators – Turning the Clock Back (turningclockback.com)

Bee Houses for Native Solitary Bees | The Old Farmer’s Almanac

Here is one we’ve made from phragmites reeds and a recycled coffee can! It’s easy to use materials you find around your house. Drilling holes into logs (make sure it’s untreated wood) is another great way to build a house. A great weekend project!

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How can we increase habitat and forage for pollinators?

In addition to building nesting sites for native bees, we can plant pollinator gardens to benefit both honey and native bees. Pollinator gardens are becoming increasingly popular in Montana for their beauty and function! The gardens provide a source of food and habitat for pollinators. Pollinators and their habitat are facing increasing pressure with the expansion of development and agriculture. At the RVCD, we have FREE pollinator seed packets available that you can use to start a pollinator garden. Email london@rvcd.org to claim yours! The seeds can be planted directly in the ground, in pots, or raised beds.

The Montana State honey bee research site and pollinator garden!

Other ways to make your yard and garden a haven for bees include…

  1. Plant native pollinator-friendly shrubs and trees!
  2. Plant a mixture of plants that bloom across spring, summer, and fall to provide year-round food for pollinators.
  3. Reduce or eliminate herbicide/pesticide use on your lawn and garden! Planting species that attract predator insects of your pests is an alternative to pesticides.
  4. Provide a small amount of water for pollinators in a shallow dish. Including places for pollinators to land like sticks and rocks helps to prevent drowning.
  5. Leave dead tree trunks and leaf cover where you can. These provide nesting opportunities for native bees and insects.
  6. Support land conservation and pollinator initiatives! Preserving habitat for pollinators is essential to their survival.

Want to hear more about pollinators? On May 27th at 6:30pm, the Ruby Valley Conservation District is hosting a virtual talk focused on pollinators. This presentation is one of three in a Wildlife Speaker Series hosted by the Beaverhead Watershed Committee & Conservation District, Centennial Valley Association, Ruby Habitat Foundation, Ruby Valley Conservation District, Madison Conservation District, and the Bighole Watershed Committee. The final two talks are scheduled for June 24th and July 22nd at 6:30pm on Trumpeter Swans and Artic Grayling. Look out for more info and a Zoom link as we get closer to May.

Join us tomorrow to learn about snowpack and water supply! You will hear about the importance of snowpack, our volunteer water quality monitoring team, and hear from NRCS Water Supply Specialist, Lucas Zukiewicz, in a presentation titled “Importance of Southwest Montana Snowpack” at 6:00pm via WebEx.