Gardening seems very simple, until you try to do it well consistently, working with nature. For a long time, the biggest impediment to a bountiful garden was the need for daily watering. The Groasis Waterboxx changed this – capturing condensation from the air and transpiration moisture from the plant, as well as occasional rainfall, storing it and slowly releasing it to the roots of the plant. Once a filled Waterboxx is in place around most vegetables with a compact central stalk (like tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, eggplants, squash, and melons), little or no water is needed again for the length of the growing season. Dew Harvest in privileged to sell the Waterboxx in the United States.
Once consistent water is addressed by placement of the Waterboxx, however, an additional problem arises. Having large, fast growing plants doesn’t necessarily mean having lots of produce – tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash and melons. The plants themselves growing well only means that that they produce flowers well – the flowers still need to be fertilized. This is where bees come into the picture.
Bees bring pollen from the male anther to the female stigma – allowing fertilization to take place – without which there would be no fruit. Some flowering garden plants, like tomatoes, can undergo this process just through the wind but bees are a more direct and definite way for fertilization to happen.
Many people assume, due to all the press coverage they receive, that honey bees are native to North America and that they are the best pollinators for the garden. Honey bees are wonderful – we wouldn’t want to live without the mild sweetness of panna cotta with honey – but European honey bees are neither native to the U.S. nor are they particularly effective pollinators. Honey bees are greedy with pollen - taking as much back to their hive as possible to eat and feed their young- dispersing relatively little between plants. Many other native bees, for example mason bees, leafcutter bees, squash bees and even bumblebees, are far more important for pollinating plants in the home garden. Most gardeners are familiar with only one of these – bumblebees – and only then for their sting. This is unfortunate – honeybees are the celebrities of the bee world – doing little of the real work of pollinating but getting all the credit – while native bees remain unsung and underutilized.
Mason bees of the genus Osmia, including the strikingly beautiful blue orchard bee, get their name from the fact that they use mud to complete their nests. These solitary bees lay eggs in existing holes – like reeds or purposely drilled holes in wood blocks. They are active very early in the spring – as soon as the weather is consistently fifty degrees Fahrenheit. This makes them ideal pollinators for early blooming fruit trees – cherries, pears, apple and especially peach - all of which can be planted with the Waterboxx as ours were.. Just a handful of mason bees can ensure an excellent peach harvest – we have harvested well over 200 peaches from a four year old peach tree due to our purchase of mason bees. Mason bees do need a consistent source of wet mud nearby to be induced to build their nest – and should also have reeds or pre-drilled holes in an untreated wood block available. Make sure the mason bees’ holes face south or east – the morning sun being needed to warm these cold blooded garden companions. While providing a home and a supply of mortar (namely – wet mud) can encourage these bees to come to your garden and stay, after several years of trying unsuccessfully to entice them to our Dew Harvest Test Garden, we decided to purchase these bees and couldn’t be happier. Only female mason bees sting – and then they only tend to do so if trapped or crushed. In several years of releasing and closely observing these gentle bees we have never been stung. The only protection we use when handling them is gardening gloves and sunglasses (which should always be worn in the garden ). Important Note: If allergic to any insect of the order hymenoptera (including wasps and ants) – it is wise to avoid bees as these species are all related.
Mason bees are active for the first 6-8 weeks of the growing season before laying their eggs and dying. Their eggs then mature the rest of the year and emerge as adults the following spring.
|A blue orchard mason bee visiting an eggplant flower in the Dew Harvest Test Garden|
Leafcutter bees, belonging to the genus Megachile (are they really cold?), are very similar to mason bees but differ in a few important respects. These bees also live in hollows in wood but line their nest not with mud but with parts of leaves they cut themselves. This tendency to cut up leaves deterred us from acquiring leafcutter bees for several years – much to our regret. The amount of leaves used by these bees is negligible, and we have not noticed any marked defacing of our ornamental plants. When we did acquire leafcutter bees, however, the amount of produce from our garden plants increased dramatically.
Leafcutter bees do not become active until later in the spring – when temperatures are closer to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and also are active for 6-8 weeks. The period after the temperature first rises into the 80s is often the time when there are the most flowers available on garden plants and the most fruits can be produced. Leafcutter bees prefer rose or lilac leaves to line their homes so these should be nearby to encourage them to stay, and just like mason bees will do well with drilled holes.
|A leafcutter bee emerging from its reed home in the Dew Harvest Test Garden|
Squash bees are one of our favorite insect partners in the Dew Harvest Test Garden - at least partly because we didn't have to pay for them them or build them a house - they arrived of their own accord. These native cucurbit specialists chose to come live in burrows in our dirt after we had been planting several types of squash and their cousins - cucumbers and melons, for a few years. The females of the bees live in solitary burrows in the soil, and can sting if their homes appear threatened. The males actually sleep in the cucurbit flowers themselves at night - awaiting the females during the morning, sleeping during the afternoons. The male squash bees do not sting. As these bees only visit cucurbits - which is a group of garden plants that includes winter squash, zucchini, pumpkins, gourds, melons and cucumbers - they are very effective pollinators and will dramatically increase your garden yields of these plants. The best way to encourage squash bees to begin living on your property is to plant cucurbits in consecutive years (but at different locations in the garden each year to discourage pests).
|A single squash bee resting in a cucurbit flower - this is likely a male that slept there overnight - what a charmed life!|
Bumble bees hold a special place of both mild apprehension and respect in our garden. These bees of course can sting and their stings hurt severely. However, we haven't been stung since childhood despite spending as much time outdoors as possible. Our family dog even has a strange tendency to chomp on these bees in flight - and he has never been stung (thank heavens!). These bees also live in burrows in the soil as well as sometimes above ground. Bumblebees are one of the few bees capable of buzz pollination - a type of shaking of the flower using flight muscles to dislodge pollen. This buzz pollination is the only type of pollination (besides wind) that can fertilize tomatoes. Just like squash bees, bumblebees will move into your garden if there is sufficient pollen year after year.
|A bumblebee on a wild flower in our Waterboxx Test Garden|
Successful gardening is like climbing a ladder - each step must be climbed before the next. The first step for plants is correct climate, then good soil. The largest step for many warm and sunny areas is consistent water - which is provided by the Waterboxx (available from Dew Harvest here). After these steps are climbed however pollination becomes vital to have a productive garden. That is where our friends, native bees, become essential. We honestly find more joy in gardening when working with bees (and our other friends predator insects like mantises and ladybugs) than with any other aspect of gardening. If you would like to learn more about Waterboxx gardening, working working with nature, please consider reading our E-Book - The Waterboxx Gardener: How to Mimic Nature, Stop Watering, and Start Enjoying Your Garden on Amazon.com. The Waterboxx itself can be used to grow many garden plants, frequently without any water after planting, and lasts for up to 10 years.