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Planting a garden for leafcutting bees

Whenever I write about leafcutters, someone from the Entomological Society of America writes to remind me that the official common name is “leafcutting” bees. To me, the phrase “official common name” is an oxymoron. The official name is the Latin scientific name, and the common name is what the local people call it.

I understand that entomologists want to reduce confusion, but isn’t that what the Latin name is for? I simply love to hear local variations in names. Furthermore, I think that insisting on a “official” common name destroys a rich treasure trove of vocabulary.

My favorite example is a gem. The group of insect pollinators that we northerners call “hover flies” are often referred to in the southeastern states as “steady bees.” Now granted, a hover fly is not a bee, but once you see one of these creatures defy gravity, you know exactly what either group is referring to, right?

Leafcutters are fun to watch

As winter approaches I like to think about my pollinator garden. This year I’m fixated on leafcutters. As far as wild and native bees go, I think the leafcutters are one of the most charming groups. The way they hold up their pollen-coated abdomens is absolutely endearing. Their arched backs always remind me of gymnasts and dancers.

Two summers ago, in 2015, I had a succession of leafcutter species all season long, one right after the other. This past year, I had some but not nearly as many. So I’ve been doing some research to find out exactly what to plant for them.

Leafcutting bees are closely related to the so-called mason bees. They are both in the family Megachilidae (which means “large jaws”). Most of these species live in cavities, so it is easy to get them to nest in tubes, reeds, and straws.

Most of the leafcutting bees are in the genus Megachile (meg-uh-KYLE-ee). They collect and store pollen much like other natives, but they cut circles out of leaves and petals to use for nesting materials. If you are quick, you can sometimes see them carve the discs and fly away with them. Or you can see them arrive at their nest and force the piece into the nesting tube. The pieces are used to line the nest, build partitions, and close off the entrance.

Alfalfa leafcutters are small and quick

Most often we hear about the alfalfa leafcutting bee (Megachile rotundata), an introduced species. They’ve escaped from the alfalfa (lucerne) fields they were imported to pollinate, and now they occupy a wide range of habitats. These small bees are quick and not nearly as spectacular in appearance as some of the native species, but they are still fun to watch.

I will never forget standing in an alfalfa leafcutter domicile in eastern Washington, inhaling the fragrance of fresh-cut alfalfa wafting from the nests. The leafcutters zoomed to and from the domicile with the frenzied gentleness of a honey bee swarm, completely ignoring me.

Most of the leafcutters I have here at my place are larger than the alfalfa leafcutters, more similar in size to a honey bee. But leafcutting bees have a different physical presence. As I mentioned before, they hold their abdomens aloft, giving them an arched appearance. And they often hold their wings out to the side as they forage. Their abdomens are large, rounded on the bottom, and often laden with pollen.

Attract leafcutters with the things they need

To attract leafcutters to your garden, you need to provide the things most bees require: sources of pollen, nectar, water, nesting sites, and building materials. Having watched leafcutters for a number of yeas, I’ve noticed that the flowers they forage on are not necessarily the same ones they use for building. I want to provide both, if I can figure out what those are.

Last year, my leafcutters loved cosmos for both building and foraging. They adored the blue bells (Campanula) for foraging, but I never saw them build with it. They used the leaves of my Clematis but never touched the flowers. This year, they frequently foraged on the open-centered dahlias, sunflowers, mints, and phacelia but never harvested any discs from those flowers. Many leafcutters love to build with the petals of Clarkia (farewell-to-spring) and some species use Clarkia exclusively.

Of course, many leafcutters get sprayed for stealing bits of rose and lilac leaves. This is sad, of course, because, although the leaves look like they were hit with a shotgun, the plant is not permanently damaged. I’ve also seen leafcutters use both the flowers and leaves of Thunbergia (black-eyed susan vine) for discs, but I don’t know if they forage there. They also use the petals of partridge pea.

What else should I plant?

So far this fall I’ve order Clarkia and Cosmos for next year. I have the dahlia tubers from this year, and I hope to get some more Campanula. If you know of anything attractive to leafcutters, I would love to hear from you.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Leafcutter-she-bee
This leafcutting bee is foraging on Phacelia. You can see the thick hairs on the underside of her abdomen. This area is used for collecting pollen. © Rusty Burlew.
Leafcutter
This is an alfalfa leafcutting bee. © Rusty Burlew.
Leafcutter-on-dahlia-4
This leafcutter is foraging on a dahlia. You can see her large mandibles (big jaws) and the edges of her hairy abdomen. Also note how she holds her wings out to the side while foraging. © Rusty Burlew.
Cosmos-with-bite-marks-Rusty-Burlew
This honey bee is foraging on a cosmos that was damaged by a leafcutter. © Rusty Burlew.

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Comments

Heather from Wayne, PA
Reply

I noticed hover flies gathering pollen from my yellow baptisia this year.

Lisa Robinson
Reply

Hello–I haev Megachilids in my garden. I have not seen them cutting much of anything so now I am going to be looking for that more next year. I have photos of a bee trying ever so hard to cut the yellow petals of some Calylophus serrulatus (sundrops) I got from Derby Canyon natives. She tried and tried and tried, but only managed to smash one petal a little. I wonder if she had damaged mandibles. I found a nest inside some dock, which has a stem that is hollow and has nodules similar to bamboo. The petals inside were distinctive pink so I believe they were Penstemon richardsonii (cut leaved penstemon) petals because it is the only thing that color in my garden. I did see a few circles cut from a plant that I cannot identify which seemed to be a weed that was small, under an inch tall and had wide fleshy flat leaves that seemed very tender, so maybe easy to cut. I hoped to see that weed grow up so I could tell what it was. (Not purslane). Those flowers were very busy with leafcutters, honey bees and some bumble bees all summer. (They bloom and reseed very well here, in Wenatchee, with a small amount of water–not sure if they’d survive more wet unless you gave them extra drainage/sandy soil, but other penstemons might be a good substitute!)

Have you considered putting up different sized tubes and seeing if you attract smaller leafcutters or mason bees? I saw some boards drilled with different sized holes. Pollinators.org says to go down to 2mm, and that the smallest bees like campanula: http://www.foxleas.com/make-a-bee-hotel.asp

Good luck!
Lisa

Rusty
Reply

Lisa,

I actually go a little smaller than that. My smallest nest holes are 1.5 mm and they attract Ceratina. From there, I go up about a mm at a time until I get to 8 mm. And yes, different species nest in the different hole sizes. It’s fun to watch.

Lisa Robinson
Reply

PS: Don’t plant Lamb’s Ears unless you like Wool Carder bees. The males defend the plant and knock other insects away with the end of their spiny abdomens. I watched one do this last year, and they are in our state now. I’ve read they can kill bees with this behavior and you probably wouldn’t want that around your hives.

Lisa

Rusty
Reply

Lisa,

I adore wool carder bees, and have planted numerous types of lamb’s ears for them, but they ignore every one. The wool carders I have much prefer lemon balm and guard it obsessively. I’ve seen them chase away many honey bees, but I’ve never seen a honey bee or other pollinator injured by one. Attacks on other pollinators have been documented, but actual injuries are few and far between. My honey bee hives and wool carders are in close proximity, but I don’t worry about it. For the most part, they forage on different plants.

Marilyn
Reply

I never saw them at work, but the large orange flowers of my huge trumpet vine had many suspicious round pieces missing.

Nancy
Reply

Hi Rusty,

An aside about common names: in our fields is an annual wildflower that much resembles the bedding plant Ageratum, but tall enough for bouquets. It’s in the amazing Eupatorium genus (Joe-Pye Weed, Boneset) and its specific is coelestinum (celestial) for its delicate blue color. The “official common name” (yeah, that cracks me up!) is Blue Mistflower. But when some older farmers were joking about “selling weeds,” (Butterfly Weed, Snakeweed, Goldenrod, Ironweed etc) at the Farmers Market, one said to “be sure and get that pretty blue flower that my wife puts in her bouquets, that Farewell Summer.”

How’s that for grassroots poetry?

I’m two ways about it: it bothered me that locals call Lambsquarters, which is edible, “Nightshade” which definitely is NOT. They’re missing out on a treat, and possibly risking a child or pet eating the toxic berries of the real Nightshade.

However, a nice compromise with innocuous plants like Mistflower is to call that “the book name” and to respect “what my Poppaw called it.”

In Wendell Berry’s novel “Hannah Coulter,” he mentions the heroine watching a hover fly, but is careful to tell the reader that it’s a small fly which the people of the area call a “steady bee.”

So there’s room for both tradition and precision.

Nancy
Corinth, Kentucky

Rusty
Reply

Nancy,

I agree!

Also, in regard to weeds: When I was in college, the professors always stressed that a weed is “a plant out of place,” in other words, a weed is a plant growing where you don’t want it. Other than than that, a weed is just a plant like any other. I like that philosophy.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Oh no Rusty, there ARE official common naming committees, based largely on how popular the topic. Birds have had official common names for a long time and in North America butterflies have an official common names committee with publication, although there are disputes over some established common names. Rocks have common-name offiators too — and at least in the field rocks take a l-o-n-g time to hybridize.

As to your plant question — some leafcutter(ing) plants in our Thurston County, WA garden: Amelianchier / service berry; Hypericum forestii (or related); Norway Maple seedlings (Acer platanoides, red leaf form), roses, lilacs. What I find it that leafcutters are efficient (lazy) opportunists. The Amalanchier that grow near the block I have mounted for them (1/4” holes — ~ 6mm) is shredded by their cutting. A second one, 30 feet away, is barely touched. The regularly used hypericum, likewise, is growing near the same block. The year that my lilac was heavily used, I found that the rotten delaminating center was being used by the bees. After that guilt-inducing event (I figured it out AFTER I’d hauled off most of the stump) I started looking more carefully. I have a splitting stump near the maple, and I suspect that it is housing a cluster of leafcutters — Come spring I’ll be watching.

Glen

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

Some good ideas here. I will take a look at the nearby Amalanchier and lilac next year. I never noticed any harvesting, but I never looked at them too closely. My leafcutters were nesting like crazy, and I hunted and hunted but never found any evidence this past year, so I was puzzled.

And about waiting for rocks to hybridize . . . sounds like a fascinating hobby. I’ll have to give it a try.

HollyB
Reply

This year they completely ignored my wisteria but went bonkers on my golden privet. I didn’t see too many of the larger leaf cutters, and in fact very few of my tubes were plugged with leaf pieces. Most of the leafcutters I witnessed this year were very small and they closed off their tubes with either chewed vegetation or resin.

Jenelle
Reply

Anyone have any suggestions that might help me? Please and thank you.
In the last few days I’ve noticed a few bees hanging around and putting bits of leaf into 3 of my plants through the drainage holes…..normally that wouldn’t be a problem because I love having bees around BUT two of the planters are tomatoes and they need to be put into bigger pots soon…..I’m actually quite reluctant to do so because bees are in desperate need of help, because of Monsanto’s pesticides, one in particular that contains neonicotinoids, it’s wiping out the bees at a very scary rate…..

Rusty
Reply

Jenelle,

I think you should do the transplanting sooner, rather than later, because transplanting will probably ruin the larvae so you should get it done before they lay more eggs and raise more larvae. Less damage that way.

Sheila
Reply

Re: beneficial plants for leafcutting bees.

In my garden in Ireland, I have several species of trees, shrubs, herbs and flowers, including three species of Hypericum: H. perforatum; H. androsaemum; H. “Hidcote”. Having only discovered leafcutters last week, on inspection of all garden plant leaves, the only plant utilised is H. androsaemum. In addition, this shrub is visited by large numbers of bees, both honey and bumble.

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Sheila. Good to know. Where I live we have lots of H. perforatum, but as you say, the leafcutting bees seem to ignore it. I will try to be alert for H. androsaemum.

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