Creature Feature: Bees and Wasps

While sitting outside on a summer afternoon you hear a low buzzing sound. On alert and ready to run you scan the area, anticipating an attack from an angry insect. A reaction many of us are guilty of, but why? How many times have you actually been stung and let’s be honest, could it have been avoided? Bees and wasps are feared by many but the majority of these highly beneficial insects are not aggressive and stings are easily avoided.  

Fast Facts

  • There are more than 20,000 species of bees in the world, 800 in Texas and 13 in Southeast Texas.
  • The annual value of native bee pollination to U.S. agriculture is estimated to be $15 billion.
  • Vespa scooters are named after wasps – vespa means “wasp” in Italian.
  • Only female wasps and bees have stingers.

What do they eat?

Bees feed on nectar and pollen from a variety of flowering plants.

Solitary wasps feed mainly on nectar. Social wasps are omnivores, eating fruit, nectar and carrion such as dead insects.

What eats them?

Bees and wasps themselves are an important food source for thousands of species of birds, spiders, insects such as dragonflies and praying mantises, and larger predators such as skunks, foxes, weasels, mice, badgers and even bears.

Why do we need them?

Whether you think of bees and wasps as friend or foe, they play a critical role in the health of our environment. As pollinators, we rely on these insects to transfer pollen amongst many crops including cotton, fruit trees, melons, berries, vegetables and livestock crops such as alfalfa and clover. Even onions rely on pollinators for fertilization!

Beyond sustaining our food supply, they play a role in providing food for other wildlife. Bees and wasps are responsible for the production of seeds, nuts, berries and fruit that many other species depend on.

They also help provide shelter for those wildlife. By pollinating a variety of plants, trees and grasses they help maintain healthy forests and grasslands and provide nesting and protective spaces for other insects, birds and small mammals.

Bumblebees do not store large quantities of nectar and pollen, like honey bees. Instead they rely on a continuous food supply from spring to fall.

Bees

The most common varieties include carpenter, squash, leafcutter, sweat, mason and bumblebees.

There are a variety of places bees prefer to nest, depending on the species. 70% of all bee species dwell underground. The rest find their shelter in bare ground, weathered wood, or a honeycomb. When cleaning up around the yard, keep in mind that bees need a variety of places to live so leave some options for them to call home. Some bees are solitary dwellers (carpenter bees) and others live in social groups (bumblebees). The most familiar and well-known hive-dwelling bee is the honey bee.

A nest is the proper term to describe a colony that has created a natural cavity, usually hanging and exposed. A hive is a man-made structure used to house a honey bee nest.

The European honey bee has caught a lot of media attention in recent years due to a steep decline in population. Brought over in the 1600s, honey bees have spread to nearly every corner of North America. Due to pesticides, habitat loss, and disease, the population of honey bees has declined nearly 60% in the last 50 years.

Beekeeping is permitted within the boundaries of The Woodlands Township. State regulations do apply. The Texas Apiary Inspection Service (TAIS) oversees the State regulations regarding beekeeping.

Wasps

Paper wasps, Mud Daubers and Yellowjackets are some of the wasps you may encounter around the home. Distinct color patterns, smoother, thinner bodies, and a reputation for ill-temperament distinguish wasps from their more beloved counterpart, bees. That bad reputation, though, is not entirely deserved.

True, an un-barbed stinger allows a wasp to sting repeatedly (a honey bee must leave its stinger in the victim, causing it to die shortly after). However, the majority of the time, wasps will sting only when they or their nests are threatened. If you keep a safe distance from nests and don’t swat (this only excites them more) you’ve nothing to worry about. If you find yourself under attack, cover your head and run away quickly into a building or protected area.

Did you know that wasp venom contains a pheromone that causes other wasps to become more aggressive? A good reason not to swat at one near its nest or other wasps.

Wasps are one of the most beneficial insects when it comes to controlling pest populations. Nearly every pest insect on Earth is preyed on by a species of wasp, either for a meal or as a host for its parasitic larvae. So, having wasps in your garden just may solve your tomato hornworm problem!

Removal

If your wasp or bee population has gotten a little too comfortable around the house, taking up residence in a wall of your home or storage shed, the best solution is to have the hive removed by a licensed structural pest control operator (the Texas Department of Agriculture maintains a list).

Spraying or improper removal most often results in the site being re-inhabited. Lingering pheromones and honeycomb residue will draw them back making proper sealing of access points a critical step. Licensed operators will also work with a local hive owner to relocate bees before treating the nest. Many will not relocate wasps. Instead, the wasps are exterminated and the nest is removed.

Bees and wasps are a critical component of a healthy ecosystem. They benefit the local gardener, the commercial farmer, and all of us who enjoy a cup of coffee, chocolate bars, or fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, their populations have seen a significant decline in the last few decades. If you enjoy the ‘fruits’ of their labor, help them out by providing native nectar plants, some shelter, and most importantly, eliminating the use of pesticides at home. These beneficial insects will show their gratitude in the form of fewer pests in your garden next spring.

For more information, check out these resources:

Air BeeNBee

Looking to purchase new property with a small footprint and a big return on investment?

What if you could build a house for pennies and fill it with tenants who get right to work improving the house and the whole neighborhood?

Sound good? Then it’s time to invest a bee house!

Meet The Renters

Native Solitary Bees, also known as pollen bees, account for approximately 90% of bee species native to Texas. Because these bees are not honey producers and don’t have the ‘job’ of protecting and providing for a hive, they’re not aggressive and are fine around children and pets. Most solitary bees only sting when provoked (smashed, swatted or sprayed) and they’re safe to have in the garden.

The most common bees to take up residency are mason bees, leafcutter bees, carpenter bees and sweat bees. A couple hundred of these friendly neighbors can pollinate as many flowers as a thousand honeybees!

In Spring and Summer, a female bee will select a cavity or ‘room’ in your bee house, fill it with food, lay eggs, seal the room shut, and then move on to her next nest. She won’t revisit or defend the nest. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the stored food, winter inside the nest and then emerge in the spring to start the cycle all over again, providing you an endless stream of renters and pollinators!

Hard Hats Required: Construction Zone

Bee houses come in many shapes and sizes; something roughly the size of a birdhouse is common for most urban landscapes. Whether purchasing a pre-made one or building on your own, consider the following:

Be sure to avoid pressure-treated wood – the chemicals deter would-be inhabitants. If you want to up the curb appeal you can paint the roof and sides; just allow a few weeks for the smell to wear off before bees will move in.

Provide a variety of “room” sizes for bees to choose from – about 1/8″ to 1/2″. A variety of materials provide dark tunnels perfect for nesting: bamboo, hollow reeds, cardboard tubes, small logs or tree branches. Commercial premade nesting tubes or blocks are also available. Whatever material you choose, make sure the tubes are all cut 6″ to 8″ deep, allowing plenty of room for bees to nest. Use sandpaper to smooth any rough edges at the ends. Make (or purchase) extra tubes so you can change out rotten or damaged ones over time.

The back of the house should be closed and the front open. A roof will help keep rain out and should extend 2″ over the front.

After collecting your materials, fill the frame with various sized rooms and add in some bits of nature (pinecones, branches, foliage) in any gaps around the sides, to make the bees feel at home. If you’re concerned about birds or other predators, cover the front of the house with chicken wire.

Room With A View

Find a spot in your yard within 300 fee of plants that flower, aka bee food. Distance is important as some native bees don’t travel very far to find food. Place the house on the south side of a building, fence post or tree that gets morning sun and afternoon shade.  The higher the better: place the house a minimum of 3′ from the ground. 

Avoid hanging your house from a pole or hook; it will swing too much to be considered a safe home by bees. Best to have the back of the house flush with a sturdy object. Once your house has residents, DO NOT MOVE!  If you must relocate, wait until November when most of the tubes will be filled with eggs waiting to hatch in the spring.

Upkeep

Bee houses require little maintenance; however check periodically that the house remains dry and no mold or mildew is occurring. Look for signs of pollen mites, chalkbrood, and parasitic wasps. All are threats to your bee house. 

Your bees may be fine on their own, but the best way to prevent the spread of parasites and disease is to “harvest” your cocoons at the end of the season, or around mid-November. To do this, simply open the nesting tubes and remove the contents. Separate the cocoons from any debris and wash them off in a bowl of cool water. Then place into a container, such as a Tupperware with air holes, in the fridge. Store your cocoons through the winter until temperatures break 50 degrees consistently. At that point, they can be placed in an open container, outside near their nest.

To learn more about harvesting solitary bees, check out this video by Bee Built.

If not harvesting, consider replacing the tubes every few years to reduce potential disease or infestations that are harmful to your bees.

To provide the best long-term housing option, AVOID PESTICIDES in your landscape, certainly around the bee house.

Identifying the types of bees in your neighborhood and meeting their specific needs will help you become the best landlord you can be. Check out the free iNaturalist app for help in identifying and documenting the activity in your yard.

Get your bee house buzzing with activity then sit back and enjoy your new neighbors!

Giant Coneflower: Taking your garden to new heights

Rudbeckia maxima

Piercing the sky like a lighthouse in a sea of plants and shrubs, the giant coneflower attracts eleven different species of butterflies, native bees, and beautiful birds to your garden.  Guided by a beacon of yellow petals, hover flies and minute pirate bugs are drawn to this plant, as many pollinators are, and will feed on common garden pests such as thrips, aphids and whiteflies.   The giant coneflower is a plant that stands tall in any garden and is worth searching for at local fall plant sales, native plant nurseries, or online plant retailers. 

Where to find it

The giant coneflower is native to a small geographic area incorporating parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.  This herbaceous perennial can be found growing naturally in open woodlands, prairies, pastures and along roadsides and railroad tracks.

In 1816, near the Red River, in then Oklahoma Territory, the giant coneflower was first identified by the English botanist and plant explorer Thomas Nuttall.

Easy care and adaptable

The best part: giant coneflower is low maintenance. It thrives in clay or sandy soil and tolerates dry to medium soil moisture, drought conditions, heat and even short term flooding.  Sounds like Houston weather to me!  This golden giant has no serious disease problems and is resistant to pests, an impressive combo any gardener will love.

Begin planting in early fall to allow the basal clump time to establish itself during the cooler months, and allow adequate spacing to accommodate the 3-4 foot spread of the mature plants.   Giant coneflower thrives in full sun but tolerates part shade.   Throughout the first year, only the beautiful blue green leaves will be visible.  In warm climates like ours the leaves are evergreen, adding to the plant’s winter interest.  At maturity, these attractive cabbage-shaped leaves may be 15” to 18” in length, earning this plant the common name: cabbage coneflower.

The second season is when this plant really becomes a showstopper.   Tall stalks reach 6-8 feet in height and 3 inch wide flowers with drooping yellow petals and tall, dark brown cones make a strong statement in the garden. Use the stunning flowers in fresh or dried floral arrangements but be sure to leave some on the stalk as food for gold finches, chickadees and other backyard birds. 

The J.C. Raulston Arboretum located at North Carolina State University has provided an online collection of photographs of this beautiful plant.   Check out these gorgeous pictures HERE and get ready for some fall garden inspiration.

Giant coneflower is a uniquely beautiful and towering plant that will enhance not only the visual appeal of your garden, but will  reward you with visits from  a variety of pollinators this fall.


Beat the heat with Bluebells

 

Native Plant Focus: Texas Bluebell

Eustoma exaltatum ssp. Russellianum

Copy of Texas Bluebell

Try to think of one thing that wildflowers and ice cream have in common.  Not so easy, is it?

Texas’ native wildflowers need the summer heat to survive just as many of us depend on a scoop of cold, delicious ice cream to get us through a summer afternoon.  But there’s only one wildflower that has influenced a nation of ice cream lovers more than any other.  An enchanting specimen that at one time was so abundant across the Texas prairie that a large creamery located near Brenham decided to adopt its name in 1930.  This native beauty is the Texas Bluebell.

Where to find it

Ranging southward from Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota to new Mexico, Texas and Louisiana, the Texas Bluebell (known also as Showy Prairie Gentian or Prairie Gentian), is considered by many to be the most beautiful of Texas wildflowers.   Sadly, in Texas, the plant’s range has decreased dramatically over the past century.  The upright, showy blue to purple bell-shaped flowers are so attractive in cut flower arrangements that admirers have over-picked it, drastically reducing the number left in nature to produce seed capsules.  Today, locating Texas Bluebells in the wild requires a focused effort.  In our local area, some of the isolated prairies within Sam Houston National Forest provide limited viewing opportunities.

Easy care & adaptable

With blue blooms emitting a natural iridescence and a velvety texture, the two-inch bell-shaped flowers stand upright on deep blue-green stems and leaves covered with a waxy bloom.  Texas Bluebells thrive in moist sandy or sandy loam soils and are most likely to be found along the edges of creeks, streams, or drainage areas.  This perennial plant develops a long taproot to access the required moisture from deep within the soil.  While it prefers full sun, the Texas bluebell will grow in part shade.  During periods of rain, the beautiful blue blossoms will close and will re-open when the sun emerges.  The plant is heat tolerant and continues to produce blooms during the summer when other wildflowers are past their prime.

In the home landscape, Texas Bluebells are perfect for the edges of water or rain gardens, in ornamental beds, borders or cutting gardens.  They’re easy to maintain and have no known serious insect or disease problems.  If you’re incorporating Texas Bluebells, consider beginning with young rosettes; starting from seed can be challenging. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is bluebell-seeds-1-1.png

Attract pollinators

As a native plant, the Texas Bluebell offers a number of benefits for the environment.  Birds are attracted by its tiny black seeds while hummingbirds, butterflies and bees enjoy the nectar and pollen.  Since bees are attracted to blue flowers, the major pollinator for this plant is the metallic green sweat bee, whose long tongue is able to reach the nectar deep within the large flower.  Metallic green sweat bees are one of the most prolific native bees in local yards and gardens.

Providing habitat for native bees is an important role for homeowners.  The University of Texas offers some excellent tips for improving native bee habitat.

Growing native Texas Bluebells and creating enhanced native bee habitat in your own landscape will support restoration of this stunningly beautiful blue flower.  Bluebells will begin their bloom cycle in June and continue blooming throughout the heat of the Texas summer.  Visit a local native plant retailer now to establish these rewarding plants in your own garden. 

of bright lisanthus flowers on white background

Approximately 80 years ago, the Japanese imported Texas bluebell seeds, as the flower is considered by the Japanese people to be extremely beautiful. Commonly called ‘lisianthus”, the Japanese hybrids vary in color to include white, pink, lavender and yellow.

Spiderwort is stunning color for shade

Native Plant Focus: Spiderwort

Tradescantia virginiana

Spiderwort (1)

An easy to grow clump-forming perennial, spiderwort is a Texas native which thrives in nearly any growing conditions—including shade. This plant’s deep blue to violet purple flowers with their contrasting yellow stamens bloom continuously for several months beginning in March in southeast Texas. Although each blossom lasts only about one half day, the numerous buds contained in each flower cluster provide new flowers each day. Spiderwort is a member of the iris family with long narrow bright green leaves that offset the unusual, slightly fragrant blue flowers.

Spiderwort’s scientific name, Tradescantia virginiana, is in honor of John Tradescant who served as the gardener to King Charles I of England. The plant’s common name, Spiderwort, has its origin in the angular arrangement of the leaves which suggest the shape of a squatting spider.

Easy care & adaptable

This highly adaptable plant will thrive in nearly any conditions although it prefers slightly moist soil in an area of dappled shade. When planted in drier areas, the plant adapts. Included in spiderwort’s many assets are its ability to grow in any soil as well as in light conditions ranging from shade to full sun.  In addition, Spiderwort has no known disease or pest issues.

Attract pollinators

In the home landscape, Spiderwort is a beautiful addition to a native plant garden, pollinator garden, shade garden or natural area. Spiderwort also adapts to containers. Many types of bees are attracted to the deep blue color of the spiderwort blossoms.  Bumble bees are the plant’s major pollinator although honeybees, small carpenter bees and halictine bees also provide pollination. Butterflies enjoy the nectar of this plant while syrphid flies feed on the pollen.

spiderwort-1347209
The distinctive and beautiful flower of Spiderwort adds color to shady spots in the landscape through spring and into summer.

Missouri Plants has some wonderful close-up photographs of this wide-ranging native.

For those interested in foraging, both spiderwort leaves and flowers are edible. The leaves are useful in salads, soups or teas while the flowers can also be used in salads or can be candied.

Where to find it

Obtaining spiderwort is easy since many on-line retailers offer both the seeds and the plants. Spring is a perfect time for shipping these plants before the Texas heat arrives. April is an ideal planting time for either Spiderwort transplants or seeds. Since Spiderwort grows quickly, planting it now will provide for pollinators in only a few short weeks.

More Texas Wildflowers

To learn about more native Texas wildflowers, join Anita Tiller from Mercer Arboretum on April 4 at HARC. Anita will lead an exploration of HARC’s grounds, which is bursting with spring color and will explain many of the sustainable landscape practices HARC has put in place. The walk is followed by an indoor presentation on wildflowers native to our region. Space is limited register here – walk-ups welcome as space permits.

ES_3.28_WITW Wildflowers