Parker Memo

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Bee fly, Bombyliidae, captured by a crab spider, Thomisidae. Not a true bee but a true spider.

This year I am starting a pollinator garden for bees. I consider the entire four acres of my garden a pollinator haven for all different types of pollinators; it attracts hummers, butterflies, moths, native bees, and insects of every type. Each kind of pollinator is attracted to different colors and shapes, and some even need a specific host. Blue Orchard Bees, Osmia lignaria, only fly in spring and have been found pollinating fruit trees in the orchards of the upper Rio Grande and Northern New Mexico . For more information about this study, please see the New Mexico Native Bee Pollinator Project. I am committed to helping all types of pollinators, but my focus this year will center on the European honey bee, Apis millifera.

I have been watching bees all of my gardening life, but last year my interest and observations of honey bees intensified. I noticed a decrease in honey bees in my garden. The winter before had been a wonderfully wet season, promoting a spring of exceptional bloom, and I was surprised when the bees did not arrive in their usual numbers. I believe one of the reasons the bees didn’t fly for miles was because the bees had resources close to their hives, and concentrated their foraging efforts close to home. By not flying long distances, they conserve energy and, literally their own bodies. I have a few neighbors that keep hives. In the droughty years, most of the last 10, the bees would travel to get to my always well-watered garden. In this wet year, they had no reason to fly long distances to gather stores, as everyone’s trees bloomed, everyone had flowers that came up that had been silent throughout the drought. Why fly miles when conserving energy helps the hive flourish? Just as a cow will walk a well-worn cowpath to get water instead of hiking across the pasture, I reasoned bees would also choose a short flight path. Indeed, some native bees forage within a few hundred feet from their nest, appearing only when the conditions are right; when it rains and the specific plant they need grows. There are probably many other reasons the bees might not have come and I may be full of baloney, but the thought of not having honey bees moved me to open my garden to a hive.

Last spring I brought in a temporary hive and watched “what” they ate, “when” they foraged and “how” they foraged. These habits are different for different types of bees. “What” the honey bee ate was not a surprise. They collect nectar and pollen from just about everything in my garden. Fruit tree blooms, catmint, lambs ears, and poppies were a few of their favorites. “When” they foraged was a surprise. What I noticed flies in the face of ever notion that bees are always busy. It was a revelation that the honey bee is not an early riser, they sleep in. Most times it was only one lone guard bee and me by the hive at dawn. Only when the temperature is high enough do they fly, usually between 40 and 50 degrees, way after the sun rises. They also did not like cloudy, rainy, or windy weather staying close to home or inside the hive. “How” they forage was new to me as well. Apis millifera feeds on one specific kind of flower at a time, also known as flower constancy. They visit only one flower type during a foraging trip. A good example from last year is when the bees first arrived. They spent days on the blooming Hawthorn trees, ignoring most everything else. The advantage of flower constancy is finding a particular source of nectar and pollen that is reliable and not wasting time. This is crucial to the honey bee whose resources must last an entire year.  If it’s close and has significant amounts of nectar or pollen, all the better. Again, why risk your hives life, if the resources you want are right outside your door.

Most of my new gardening efforts this year will revolve around honey bees and developing a season-long progression of bloom. I have two packages of bees coming in April, and I want to take excellent care of them. If honey bees are not your primary interest, consider learning more about the native bees of New Mexico and how you can help them thrive.

Both kinds of bees, native and European are essential pollinators each having their own unique attributes, some actually being very complementary to each other. I’ve seen them share resources many times. If you’ve ever watched a lavender plant blooming in the sunlight, you have seen all types of bees forage together as they busily mind their own business. I hope you too, will welcome all pollinators to your garden and be inspired by my journey.

Best,

Monika and the Boys.