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VOL. 45 | NO. 23 | Friday, June 4, 2021

Please bees, leave my house alone and go pollinate

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What do you do when creatures you’re trying to attract and nurture pay you back by eating your house?

No, I’m not operating a termite habitat. I’m speaking of the beneficial insects that assist in the plant fertilization process while flitting about hither and yon.

They’re known as pollinators, and many are endangered or threatened by loss of habitat and pesticide use, among other factors. Margaret Renkl, Nashville’s own Mother Nature columnist for The New York Times, is a big supporter. Several years back she stopped raising vegetables for the table in favor of catering to bugs:

“Now my raised beds are full of native perennials that provide nectar for bees, wasps, skippers and butterflies, or serve as their nurseries: yarrow for painted lady butterflies, dill and parsley for black swallowtails, false indigo for southern dogface butterflies, loads and loads of white clover for the honeybees.”

We haven’t given up on growing stuff for our dinner table, hoping against hope to produce some tasty tomatoes this year. It is our duty as Southerners to consume a certain number of mayo-and-’mater sandwiches. But we’ve also decided to emulate Renkl with a separate pollinator haven.

Which is to say, my wife decided, and then ordered a packet of seeds from the Tennessee Environmental Council guaranteed to deliver the pollinator-friendly goods through a program that aims to establish 10,000 square feet of new pollinator habitat this year.

I did help, in that I pitched in to de-grass a roughly three-foot-by-eight-foot patch by the alley behind our house. We dutifully spread the seeds thereupon and are now waiting for the patch to evolve from a short collection of weeds into a tall, blooming collection of weeds, aka wildflowers.

Meanwhile, we’d been admiring the bees buzzing about our other flowering plants, which I’d assumed to be bumblebees.

By the way, did you know that bumblebees used to be known as humblebees? Not as a commentary on their status in the bee world but because of the humming sound they make in flight.

Are you also familiar with the claim that science has “proven” that bumblebees can’t fly, because their wings are too small? It’s supposed to show that know-it-all scientists don’t in fact know it all, and that we should maintain a healthy skepticism about so-called experts.

But it’s a myth, so the next time you hear it stop the person talking and ...

Where was I?

Oh yeah. Well, as it turned out at least some of our bees are not of the bumble or humble variety, but of the carpenter trade. Kayne sussed this by noticing the neatly circular holes drilled under our porch eaves.

Much research ensued, during which I learned a lot about carpenter bees that I won’t burden you with. (One tidbit: The females do all the hard work, boring the holes in which to deposit the larva for the next generation. The males typically just fly around nearby, trying to ward off intruders with bluster. They lack stingers.)

What I wanted was to find a way to discourage home demolition. The agricultural extension service website’s advice on the topic included a rather cold-hearted description of how to commit bee-icide:

“If you want to be rid of adult bees, they may be captured with a net and killed. A badminton racket may also be used, though if you land a glancing blow, the bee may become agitated and defensive. Persistence is required to eliminate bees with this method.”

It didn’t seem to us that the crime of gnawing house holes, however annoying, warranted the death penalty. So Kayne bought some nifty little prefab bee houses –which the bees have completely ignored, just as they’ve ignored the nearby expanse of wooden fence readily available for munching.

David Cook, a Nashville extension agent with a background in entomology, passed along some less violent guidance when I asked, including this:

“Fill unoccupied holes with steel wool and caulk to prevent their reuse as overwintering sites. Wait until after bees have emerged before filling the tunnels. Thoroughly plug the hole with plastic wood, steel wool or copper gauze and seal it with wood putty or a wooden dowel affixed with wood glue.”

But sealing holes seems potentially problematic. How do we tell whether the holes –tunnels, in fact, with turns and such – are unoccupied? I don’t want to create some trapped-bee version of an Edgar Allen Poe tale.

Whit Gibbons, professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Georgia, is a longtime observer of and commentator on carpenter bee behavior. I asked him, via email, how I might persuade them to turn their attention elsewhere. He was not encouraging.

“I’m not sure how this would be done,” he says.

Nor was he reassuring about the prospects for bee houses: “I tried them once and they didn’t work for carpenter bees.”

One other possibility I’d read of, citrus oil as a repellent, struck him as at best a temporary solution. Mostly, he was opposed to the extension service advice about exterminating them.

“I think that is an environmentally inappropriate suggestion from a state agency, or anybody,” he adds.

None of this surprised me. I’d read his newspaper columns offering advice on what to do about the bees, which boils down to: Nothing. He’s been letting them eat into his own porch for years, figuring the actual damage is minimal.

“[W]atch them, listen to them and otherwise enjoy them,” he advised in one column.

Live and let live. Seems like pretty good advice in general.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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