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Energy and Environment

Researchers Hope Kansas Bee Hotel Will Educate, Start Conversation About Native Bees

As concerns about diminishing honeybee populations continue to grow, North America’s 4,000 other species of native bees are also declining. In response, “bee hotels” are springing up all over North America and Europe, including one installed last month north of Lawrence. 

A patchwork of bamboo and paper tubes, with diameters no bigger than a nickel, are stacked artfully inside a 4-by-4 wooden frame near the edge of a public hiking trail in Lawrence. Organized by size, each hollow tube is about 8 inches long, designed as nests for Kansas’ wild bees. This structure is called a bee hotel.

It’s pretty new, and there aren’t very many bees here yet--not that you need to worry. While these bees do have stingers, they're not aggressive.

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Credit Abigail Wilson
Daphne Mayes, left, and Campbell, both of KU, stand in front of the bee hotel in Lawrence.

The hotel has been in place for about a month, says Scott Campbell of the Kansas Biological Survey, one of several research centers at KU. The area surrounding the bee hotel is called the John D. Rockefeller prairie, part of the KU Field Station, a more than 3000-acre plot of land set aside for scientific research and education.

Students and researchers from KU and others from all across the country use the area. The bee hotel adds another layer of education to the decades of environmental research that has taken place here.

“These bees naturally will be nesting in things like a dead log with beetle burrows that are hollowed out, and in hollow stems of plants," says Daphne Mayes, a PhD student at KU studying wild bees. "So really, this structure is just trying to mimic the things that are found in nature for these organisms."

The hotel is made for solitary bees that don't swarm or have a hive like the more well known honeybees and wasps. So there’s no queen, no workers--just a single bee and its larvae. 

"Honeybees and bumblebees will not be nesting in a bee hotel because it's not part of their life history," Mayes says. "So what you will be finding are things like leafcutter bees. As the name is describing it, they cut pieces of leaves to line their nests. You'll also find mason bees, which use mud to partition their nests."

Each nest has repeating segments of nesting material, larvae and pollen. Once the nest is full, the bee seals it off and moves on to another location. But with habitat loss and the use of certain pesticides, native bees are having a harder time finding food sources and nesting sites.

Studies focused on wild and native bees have shown a change in where certain species are found over time, but the data only goes back so far and is so vast that it’s hard to drawn any conclusions.

“I think that there is a lot of research going on right now focusing on native bees and things like these bee hotels," Mayes says. "There are universities that are using these as a citizen science tool to document species that are found in different areas, and so I think that over time we'll have a much better understanding of these native species, of their needs and how much they fluctuate.”

If there’s anyone who understands bees, it’s entomologist Dr. Charles Michener.

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Credit Abigail Wilson
Entomologist Dr. Charles Michener at his home.

He’s been studying them for more than 80 years and wrote the definitive book on bees, a more than 900-page work called Bees of the World. At 96 years old, he still contributes to bee research at KU, where he goes to his lab three days a week. He came to live in Lawrence in 1949, and has been with the college ever since.

“I studied bees and bee behavior on sabbaticals and on other trips in places like Africa, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, et cetera," he says, "So I have been collecting bees in most parts of the world.”

Michener's home in Lawrence is carefully decorated with mementos from his trips and studies: small onyx vases, a tribal mask, stacks of books about plants and animals. There’s a fragile shell from a cicada sitting on the coffee table. He says he agrees with the present view that insecticides are the most common cause for the decline in bees.

"Of course there are other things like destruction of natural vegetation and when somebody destroys it, plows it up and plants in soybeans or something else like that, then the bees are left without their ordinary sources of food,” he says.

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Credit Bob Peterson, flickr Creative Commons
Leafcutter bee

  

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Credit John Baker, flickr Creative Commons
Resin bee

  

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Credit gailhampshire, flickr Creative Commons
Mason bee

Michener says that without solitary bees--like those who will nest at the bee hotel, as well as other pollinators--our world would be very different.

“We wouldn't have a great many kinds of plants that we have," he says. "We wouldn't have alfalfa for animal food. Fruits like almonds, apples, et cetera, we wouldn't have. They just wouldn't exist.”

And while the focus of recent federal protection seems to be on the honeybee and monarch butterfly, saving those species doesn’t solve the whole problem.

A few species of pollinators, for example the honeybee, are able to gather pollen from many sources. But many native and wild bees only get pollen from specific sources, and sometimes those sources can only be pollinated by only one type of bee. These are called specialist bees and include some of the bees that will be nesting in the bee hotel at the KU field station.

Michener mentions one variety that only pollinates sunflowers. Another, only the evening primrose.

"There are a lot of specialists and many of them are useful pollinators of plants we're glad to have. People like evening primroses because they're pretty," Michener says. "And these specialist plants wouldn't thrive, wouldn't reproduce maybe, possibly not at all, if the specialist pollinator were extinct.”

He says the natural vegetation, like woodlands, brush patches, and prairies, would be much less varied without specialist pollinators. Though there are numerous efforts behind made to make people more aware of the importance of native bees, Michener says most people don't appreciate pollinators as much as they should.

“Some beekeepers know about it and will talk about it. How much of it gets into the hands of the average person, that's another question, I think. It’s very little," he says. "You have to admit it's not one of the urgent things for humans to know they should be concerned about.”

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To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Follow Abigail Wilson on Twitter @AbigailKMUW