JEFFERSON CITY — Spring and summer months bring both the buzz of lawnmowers and bees. These fuzzy flyers are important pollinators, playing a crucial role in the production of many favorite fruits and vegetables. The Missouri Department of Conservation encourages the public to “bee-friend” these valuable native pollinators.
“Missouri is home to around 450 species of native bees, but it’s not uncommon for more to be identified each year,” MDC Urban Wildlife Biologist Erin Shank said. “There are several common bees Missourians will encounter, including the bumblebee, carpenter bees, sweat bees, and the leafcutter bee.”
Most native bees only live about one year. They emerge in the spring as adults, visiting flowers and buildings nests. Many species, such as bumblebees, make their nests underground, while others, such as leafcutter and mason bees, will set up shop in small cavities found in wood or in the pith of plant stems.
Bees may send some running for the hills for fear of being stung, but most native bees are harmless.
“Most don’t have stingers long enough to penetrate human skin,” MDC Private Land Services Division Chief Bill White said.
Additionally, native bees are doing their agricultural duty by pollinating flowering plants that provide food, fiber, and even medicines.
Shank explained that native bees, such as the bumblebee, are effective pollinators because of a technique called buzz pollination.
“It’s a vibrating movement involving their wing muscles that allows the bumblebee to free pollen from the anther, the flower’s pollen-producing structure,” Shank said. “This strategy causes the flower to explosively release pollen. There are some flowering plants that will release pollen only through buzz pollination. One favorite, the tomato plant, requires either buzz pollination or visitation by a larger bodied bee, such as the bumblebee.”
Bee a friend
There are several ways the public can support Missouri’s native bees. Shank said the best way is to get floral.
“It’s all about the flowers,” Shank stressed. “Provide native companion plants, and especially those with colorful blossoms, because color attracts bees.”
Companion planting, in which one plant helps the growth of another, can help facilitate the pollination of fruits and vegetables. For example, planting bee balm can help pollinate tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Other examples of flowering companion plants include sunflowers, wild hyacinth, blue wild indigo, purple prairie clover and common milkweed.
There are several options of flowering trees and shrubs, too.
“Redbud, American plum, and golden currant are great for pollinators,” said White.
Shank noted that providing more flowers can also mean not mowing the lawn as much.
“Clover, violets and dandelions are some common lawn plants that provide vital food for bees — especially in the spring before most flowers appear,” Shank explained.
No yard? No problem!
Shank said residents who live in urban areas without access to a yard can still be a big help to native bees.
Surprisingly, St. Louis has one of the most diverse bee populations in the Midwest, with more than 200 species found in the city limits alone.
“You can offer bees native flowers in a planting box or pot,” Shank explained. “Getting involved in a community garden or helping plant at a nearby park is great, too.”
For those without a green thumb, White encourages hanging bee houses.
“These houses, which look a lot like bird houses, can provide nesting space for solitary bee species,” White said. “They should be placed next to native blooming plants because most bees nest only a few yards away from their food source. They should also face east to absorb the morning sunlight.”
However, White cautioned against using the same bee house every year.
“To keep the houses sanitized, don’t reuse the same one. If you do, you expose the bees to fungus and other harmful disease.”
White also warned that bee houses can be infiltrated by wasps, who can frequently be mistaken for bees.
“If this happens, you can plug the holes with cork or another material,” White said. “But don’t spray any bug killer, because that can repel bees from entering the house.”
Bee pollinators’ national value is around $30 billion annually, and they are responsible for 1 in 3 bites of food Americans eat. Without bees and other pollinators, humans would not have foods such as grapes, nuts, coffee, and even chocolate.
“It’s easy to forget their critical role in agricultural food production,” Shank said. “But by making small strides to plant native flowers and shrubs, Missourians can support bee health and habitat.”
For more information on native companion plants, contact the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Grow Native! program at moprairie.org/grownative.