06 August 2023
We’re in the middle of a thrilling time of year again: leafcutter bee season. I genuinely look forward to this for months, and while this year was a rocky start with chilly temps and fires, things are starting to slowly pick up. These incredible creatures are more efficient pollinators than honey bees (which are invasive to the US) and are non-aggressive.
Like with all things it seems, I had to learn a lot about this hobby the hard way and on the spot. There are also aspects to this that I have found surprisingly therapeutic, such as just existing with them and collecting photos. I wanted to put this quick post together to help document this journey a bit outside fleeting social media posts, summarizing my thoughts and photos over the years.
I order leafcutter bee cocoons from Crown Bees each year, though once you get established you’ll have bees that “carry over” into the next year to get things started.
I have found the best houses to also be from Crown Bees. They sell individual, removable reeds and the house frames themselves come equipped with little attics to place the cocoons that are ordered or harvested from existing reeds.
Leafcutter bees don’t have to stick around within the structure they emerge–you can totally buy them and they can fly away! I’ve found that this setup has a better “stick around” rate than others. Out of an order of 200 leafcutter bee cocoons, about 50-80 that emerge will stay for me. These numbers grow fairly rapidly as they reproduce.
A lot of department stores now carry “insect hotels” with drilled holes for mason and leafcutter bees. While I’ve even bought these myself, I’ve learned that they are not ideal. First, you’ll have a variety of bugs that move in that will not exist happily together–like ants. The holes are not removable, making it impossible to individually manage to better the chances of survival. They grow mold more easily and then any healthy homes are doomed. These houses are adorable but not practical or safe.
Another factor to consider when attempting to convince these gals to stick around: making sure there is enough food within their roaming distance. They like to stay close to home, so generally not traveling more than 300 feet from their tube.
These bees, like other bees, eat pollen and nectar from flowers that they collect on the underside of their abdomens (honey bees use their legs). My priority in spring is planting as many wildflower seeds as possible. I also bought an elderberry bush in 2021 which has proven to be a great choice–lots of flowers and grows remarkably fast.
My number one lesson learned so far:
I put all these filled tubes away for safe storage in the garage. Well, these new bees emerged shortly after. We were finding leafcutter bees in our living room and it look me a day or two for my brain to dust itself off and realize what was happening.
It’s not at all common for leafcutter bees to sting. They don’t have an angry hive mind like honey bees. They don’t work together for a larger purpose–more like individuals minding their own business in an apartment complex. But they will absolutely sting if left hungry in a dark garage too long. It’s a very mild sting, but wow did I feel absolutely terrible about what I did.
I collected each bee one by one and placed them in the houses outside. I like to think I was forgiven since most of them stayed.
Birds are great and I enjoy feeding and watching them, but I do not want them anywhere near these bee houses. I made the mistake of removing the metal wire bird guard after it seemed they had no interest in the bees for months–I now realize this was of course because of the bird guard doing its job well. As soon as it was removed, birds moved into the empty top space of the house and shoved a bunch of filled reeds out, making room for optimal coziness. Once this happened my dog had access to them and chewed several up.
This was a devastating loss that I wasn’t really able to recover from last year. I tried to salvage as many reeds as I could but there were not many. When the time is right, I’ll bring the filled reeds inside for the winter to protect from animals and other insects.
Leafcutter bees are so small (I guess I’d describe as ⅓ the size of a honey bee) that it’s a bit tricky to document them out in the yard on flowers and other plants. They do, however, leave behind an obvious calling card: cleanly cut pieces out of leaves.
Ultimately, I’ve had the most success hanging out around their houses and snapping pics and videos of them leaving their tubes and returning with cut leaves; here’s a quick video of one bringing in a little leaf.
Hanging out around these busy little workers and observing them over several generations a year continues to be one of my favorite ways to pass time. It really helps slow down and fully focus on the small details around these incredible cuties–sort of like observational therapy.
I hope you have time during what little summer is left to stop and appreciate any pollinators you may come across, and–if you have space–plant a native plant garden since they are significantly more attractive to important insects like leafcutter bees. Urban Farmer has a decent seed mix based on region. An additional benefit is that native plants require much less water–thriving with minimal effort.
If you’re on Mastodon, which I highly recommend, I’ve been documenting this year’s adventures there. You can find me here.