Bee Basics


 Introduction

Bees are vital pollinators for our fruits, nuts and vegetables. They pollinate 1/3 of our food supply and 1/3 of the feed for our meat sources (ex: beef). Historically, commercial growers have relied primarily on the honey bee. This social bee is in trouble, and while science looks for answers, BeeGAP in partnership with Creative Woodcraft offers an excellent supplement with solitary leafcutter bees. These overlooked bees are exceptional pollinators, gentle-natured and easy to raise in the backyard.

 What is a leafcutter bee?

Introduced in to New Zealand in the early 1970s, the leafcutter bee is an excellent summer pollinator from North America. In North America, the bee was and is still being used heavily towards the pollination of alfafa crops. Here in New Zealand, this is more commonly known as Lucerne.

Brought in as a pollinator, a great pollinator for the pollination of these Lucerne crops, the leafcutter bee pollinates far better than a honey bee, or a bumble bee, due to the fact it carries the pollen on its abdomen. It’s one of the only bees that does carry pollen in this way. The abdomen is very hairy and the pollen sticks to the abdomen, so when the bee is flying from flower to flower, obviously, the pollen is being dispersed across all the flowers it chooses to visit – unlike the honey bee that sticks pollen to its rear legs.

Gentle, natured, non-stinging and non-colonising bees, the leafcutter bee is a great bee species to encourage to your garden.

Leafcutter bee in flight

 These bees don’t sting . . . how safe are they around children?

Genuinely very, very safe. It is possible to have these bees buzzing around your head with no fear – presenting a highly attractive addition for any gardener to consider – particularly with young families and pets. The male leafcutter bee has no ability to sting, whereas the female leafcutter bee can sting if squashed together.

However, this sting is reported to be no more than a mosquito bite and there has been no record of any anaphylactic shock being caused from leafcutter bees. These bees are hands down the safest bee species to have around children and pets, and allow the opportunity to get up really close and personal to watch them go about their business.

 While the leafcutter bee serves as an awesome pollinator, it’s not the only option for gardeners, is it?

Fundamentally, it’s important to note that BeeGAP is not trying to promote the leafcutter bee over and above any other bee. In fact, far from this. BeeGAP is trying to raise awareness about this alternative pollinator and attempts to educate New Zealand on how lucky we are as a country to have these available to us in our own gardens.

Raising awareness of this important pollinator is critical. The reliance of pollination shouldn’t solely rely on the poor old honeybee. Introducing other bees to support the honeybee in pollination activities is strongly advised and is most certainly a step in the right direction as a nation.

A heavy emphasis on the honeybee is great, however it’s delightful to know we have other pollination options available such as the leafcutter bee, solitary native bees and other pollinators such as birds, insects and bats.\

Every little helps, and by increasing pollination, we help to secure the food source for generations to come.

 Bee facts

Beyond honey bees, solitary leafcutter bees are great pollinators that are generalists (love many types of flowers), easy-to-raise and gentle natured.

A summer favourite, the leafcutter bee, are super pollinators of fruit trees, flowers and vegetable gardens. Typically, these bees emerge when the weather starts to reach 24°C, and studies have revealed their pollination efforts are ten times better than the honey bee.

 Not all bee sting

It’s important to remember that not all bees sting. In fact, 90% of the world’s 20,000+ bee species live a solitary lifestyle. A fertile female bee that has the sole responsibility of gathering pollen and nectar, laying eggs, and gathering or packing mud or leaves does not have the time or desire to sting you. In fact, the only time a solitary bee is ever likely to sting is if you accidentally squish or step on them. Interestingly, male bee species do not even have the ability to sting, therefore the possibility is minimal.

 Solitary bees vs social bees

Solitary bee characteristics Social bee characteristics
Every female is a queen; no hive to defend. She owns and maintains her own nesting hole. One queen, one hive to defend. Worker bees defend the hive, queen and young.
No communications since no one works for the female. She does all the chores. Male dies soon after mating. Hive communicates, every bee has a specific task; help raise young, gather food (pollen & nectar), and care for the queen.
Gentle, doesn't mind people close by; meaning no protective clothing required - shirts, shorts and jandels acceptable. Aggressive, will defend their hive and queen; meaning protective clothing is required.
Rarely stings. The leafcutter bee sting is similar to that of a mosquito bite. Does sting. Honey bees can cause anaphylatic shock.
No honey to harvest. Only honey bees produce honey, which can be harvested.
Efficient pollinator. Pollen and nectar are gathered in the same visit. Efficient pollinator. One bee gathers pollen, and the another gathers nectar.
Dry pollen clings to the hairy body and drops off to polliante almost every flower visited. Pollen becomes sticky and clings to the bees legs. It's comb in to pollen sacs for carrying to the hive.
Solitary bee examples Social bee examples
Leafcutter bees, mason bees and mub dauber wasps. Honey bees, hornets and wasps.
Bumble bees; we put them in the middle. While social, the bumble bee is mild mannered.

 Bee diversity works

Introducing alternative managed bees such as leafcutter bees increases pollination and seed set. Encouraging a variety of bees and nesting habits work together to enhance crop yield and quality - with all bee species working harmoniously in unison to get the job done.

Basket of food

 More bee diversity = more food for people

When we diversify our portfolio of bee species in gardens and farms we significantly help to increase pollination of our crops and we get healthier, bigger, and better fruits and vegetables. Pollination is often overlooked, and perhaps in some cases taken for granted, but it’s an important solution to the problem of our future food supply - and it’s something we all need to play our part in moving forward.

 Insect pollinators need our help

The slogan of “Save Our Bees” usually gives honey bees most of the attention, but in reality, our other introduced bee species need our help too and up to 40% of all insect pollinator species are also facing a hard time.

Raising hole-nesting solitary bees, such as the leafcutter bee, not only increases the managed bee population, it also provides awareness about all other solitary bees and the benefits that come with encouraging such a presence.

Help us share what you now know about Solitary Leafcutter bees, and help us teach children, communities, and the public about the vital role of introduced and native solitary bees in our food systems.