We’ve all heard it. Bees are in trouble. Due to pesticides, loss of natural food sources, climate change, and an increase in parasites, their numbers are declining. Bees are a vital part of our environment and their pollination skills are important for food production. But there’s good news. It is simple for you and your family to be a part of the solution. Leafcutter bees are a low-cost, low-maintenance way the whole family can help a species in need.
While kids and bees may not sound like a good combination, leafcutters are unlikely to sting. The male bees do not have stingers and the females are too busy, having the sole responsibility for building the cocoons that will hold their young. Female leafcutters will only sting if squashed. However, if you accidentally step on one, have no fear. There is no record of anyone experiencing anaphylaxis from a leafcutter bee.
Leafcutter bees are ideal for families because they are easy to care for. As solitary bees, they don’t live in a hive, and they don’t produce honey or wax. With no need to be territorial, these bees don’t mind if you get up close and watch them work. And they’re so fun to watch, you’ll want to do just that.
So, what is the point of leafcutters if they don’t produce honey or wax? The leafcutter’s super power is its amazing pollination ability. If you’re a gardener, be prepared to watch your blossoms, fruit trees and vegetables flourish. The fuzzy little tummies of the female leafcutters attract pollen, which then falls off on neighbouring plants as they make their way back to their home. Cue the super-pollination. In fact, leafcutters are far better pollinators than their cousins, the honey bees.
Leafcutter bees are native to North America and are active in the summer when temperatures are consistently in the 21?C to 38?C range. Living up to their names, they will chew perfect little circles out of leaves on your trees and plants and carry them back to their home to create cocoons for their fertilized eggs. Their favourite types of plants are roses, lilacs, hostas and peas. Yes, your leaves will show evidence of the leafcutters’ work, but don’t worry, your plants and trees won’t be harmed.
Once the bee has cut out a small piece of leaf or petal, she uses it to create a protective cocoon for her larva. She places a small ball of pollen and an egg inside, and seals the leaf around them using a combination of leaf juices and bee saliva. She continues this process until the nesting hole is full, and then packs in extra leaves or petals in at the end of the tube to protect the developing larva. Leafcutter cocoons are often beautiful, especially those made with flower petals.
Usually, the eggs produced in one summer do not develop and hatch until the following year. Sometimes, however, they hatch in the same summer. These are called second generation bees and they add to the pollination you’ll experience in your gardens.
Leafcutter bees have a short lifecycle. The males emerge from the cocoons first. They are slightly smaller than the females and have bright green eyes and a patch of white hair on the top of their head—like a tiny bee mohawk. Male leafcutters spend only about two weeks of their life as a flying adult.
The female bees emerge from their cocoons up to two weeks later than the males. They have black eyes and large—for a bee—jaws for cutting the leaves. You and your family will be able to watch the females in action for about a month. In cooler weather, this can be extended to six weeks.
As a native bee to the Island, leafcutters are an essential part of our ecosystem. Families can be a part of helping the population to resurge, while simultaneously teaching children about their role in protecting the environment.
Getting started with your leafcutters is easy. You’ll need just a few items that are easily found online, or perhaps at your local gardening store: a bee house, bee tubes, and leafcutter bee cocoons. If you’re handy, you can even build your own bee home. Instructions are also readily available online.
When the temperature is consistently at least 21?C, set up your bee house, with cocoons, in a south-facing location. Make sure the house gets lots of early-morning sun as this will warm your bees, encouraging them to emerge from their cocoons. Some people have even held onto cocoons as their bees were emerging and watched as they hatched right in their hands.
Once the female bees emerge from their cocoons and have mated with the males, they’ll get right to work building cocoons and pollinating. As most leafcutters won’t travel more than 300 feet, you can expect to get all the benefits in your own yard. Just be sure to have bee-friendly plants and trees readily available. For ideas visit bcfarmsandfood.com/plant-a-bee-attracting-garden.
In the late summer or fall, simply move the cocoons that have been built in your house to a mesh bag and store in your shed, or other protected location, over the winter. The mesh bag will help to protect your cocoons from pests. You’ll use those cocoons the following summer to start the process over again.
It’s that simple to do your part to help the bees. And in return, your leafcutters will not only ensure your gardens thrive, but will also provide hours of entertainment for the whole family.
D.L. Dux is a writer and communications coordinator at a small post-secondary institution in southeastern B.C. She enjoys raising mason and leafcutter bees at her home in Cranbrook.