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,” said MDC Urban Wildlife Biologist Erin Shank. “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.
Most native bees are harmless, according to the MDC.
“Most don’t have stingers long enough to penetrate human skin,” said MDC Community and Private Land Conservation Branch Chief Bill White. White and his team work to create and maintain native wildlife habitat in communities and on private lands.
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.”
To ‘bee’ friend a bee
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.
“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. “Delaying mowing or mowing higher can help bees by letting the plants grow. Some bees need access to the soil to excavate their nests.”