Spring is the time of year when many of us turn our thoughts to our garden and our flowerbeds.
It’s one of the joys of springtime, and into the summer, to watch my plants sprout, grow and flourish.
And with all we’ve learned about the importance of bees in the growing process, a local company’s product offering has me equally excited.
The Backyard Pollinator is the brainchild of Jed and Kathy Williams, who have an alfalfa farm near Imperial, Saskatchewan. Bees are essential to success with alfalfa, so they also raise leafcutter bees. And for the last few years, they offer bees on the retail market, allowing the backyard gardener to reap the benefits of these little hard-working pollinators.
Since I enjoy gardening, the environment, and watching things that grow in the wild, as well as supporting a Saskatchewan business, I was eager to get my bee barn in the mail. And after spending some time chatting with Kathy, I am just as eager to get the bees humming around the yard.
First, let’s explore these little buzzers, what they are and what they do. Leafcutter bees are traditionally sold for the commercial pollination of alfalfa seed crops, as well as some vegetables and fruits. Now, they can also be focused on pollinating backyards while providing some enjoyment in the simple “raising” of the bees.
Leafcutters are tiny and non-aggressive bees that are solitary, meaning they work alone and don’t hive, so they don’t have a home or a queen to protect. They stay close to their home, in my case it will be the bee barn, and they are known as super and efficient pollinators.
They work in unison with other types of bees, but they don’t make honey. Basically they hatch from larvae contained in an insert, and the males last a short time after mating with the females. The females then get to work pollinating and laying larvae that they cocoon into the insert. Females fly, pollinate and lay babies for about 8 weeks, functioning on warm days and staying inside the nesting block on cool or cloudy days.
The females return to the nesting block to lay babies inside cocoons in the holes. As the holes fill up with cocoons, the bees cap them. The adult bees eventually die and the larvae wait safely inside the cocoons until the following spring. A single female leafcutter bee visits hundreds if not thousands of blossoms each day, mixing pollen and nectar to make a paste that feeds their larvae.
With enough flowers, including vegetable flowers like cucumber, peas, zucchini, squash and more, the bees will stay within 100-200 metres of their nesting habitat. As for the bee barn, simply remove the nesting block at the end of the season and keep it in a cool place for the winter to store the larvae until the following spring. A bee barn insert should be good for two seasons of bee pollination.
While you’re at it, you can take the bee barn down to protect it as well. If you choose the cedar bee barn, you’ll be supporting another Saskatchewan endeavour, Humboldt’s Futuristic Industries Inc. It provides vocational training, employment support and more, and its staff builds the cedar bee barns.
You can also order pine bee barns, or get a bag of bees. In season, which is February through the end of June, the barns come with the cocoons inside. Out of season, you can buy a barn – let’s say as a Christmas gift – and it will come with a code that you redeem in season to get the cocoons sent out. Jed and Kathy will ship across Canada and to the U.S., and you can also find them at Peavey Mart in Western Canada and in TSC stores in Ontario. Other retail locations can be found on their website.
Now you’re probably wondering – do they sting? And the answer is yes, but usually only if they get caught under your shirt or pants. The sting hurts, but it’s only about 25% the severity of other bees, and allergies are not common. Since they aren’t aggressive and they don’t defend their hive, the chances of a sting are pretty remote.
In fact, Jed and Kathy have 60 million bees in their fields, and work without protective equipment.
These really are special little buzzers. Check back for some important guidelines as I learn how to use my Backyard Pollinator.