Creating Solitary Bee Hotels

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For folks across the country, September heralds the change of season.  Hot summer days are replacing with pleasant temperatures and cooler evenings.  Leaves are showing the first blush of fall color.  Warm season crops such as peppers and tomatoes are still producing.  And the bees foraging in the garden are making a final push to gather nectar and pollen before the weather turns cold.  But with all the buzzing going on, are you noticing other types of bees?

While folks may recognize a honey bee, what about the other insects that seem to be on the plants collecting pollen.  Do you know what they are?  Folks, many of these insects are what as known as native bees (the common honey bee was originally imported from Europe).  These bees were here before the introduction of honey bees.  Another term use for native bees is solitary bees or even pollen bee.

These bees are just as important to pollination as honey bees.  But what makes them stand apart from the honey bees (besides NOT producing honey) is their solitary lifestyle.  What this means is that they are not a hive insect, living in the same hive or nest as others of their kinds.    In other words, they live alone.  Please note that there are a few exceptions where solitary bees may share a nest with others, but they do not assist the other bees in the same nest.  Each bee is responsible for themselves.

These solitary or pollen bees seek out shelter.  Some species prefer to nest in the ground, but the others search for a cavity in which to nest.  Examples could be a hole left in a tree trunk left by a burrowing insect, a hollow plant stem such as a reed or bamboo.  But if you don’t have that type of plant material in your area, you can actually create a home for the cavity bee.   One common cavity bee is the Mason bee.

There are commercially produced bee ‘hotels’ available on the market.  A classic shape is the tear-drop model with hollow reeds acting as the individual hotel rooms.  This is model can be hung from a tree or from a building and is in the $15 – $22 price range.  However, if you are willing to get your hands dirty, you can build your own bee hotels with found, reclaimed, repurposed, or recycled materials.

Mason bee hotel

Mason bee hotel

If you choose to create your own bee hotel, a simple route to go is to create a frame out of scrap lumber.  The dimensions are up to you.  But as you build the bee hotel, keep in mind where you are going to place it on your property.  If you intend to hang it from a tree, go with a smaller design that will not bend or break the branch of the intended tree.  Free-standing models are popular for larger creations.  As you construct the hotel, use a variety of materials.  A few old bricks lying around that have holes in them?  Place those inside the wooden frame.  Feel free to use hollow wooden dowels that you cut to size to fit inside the bee hotel with the hollow ends facing outward (for easy access by the bees).

In the photo below, materials found in nature are also incorporated into the hotel.  This model has pine needles, pine cones, and some moss in addition to cut lengths of bamboo and brick.  Bees can crawl amongst these items and pull in additional material to create their desired cavity.

homemade bee hotel

homemade bee hotel

The hotels are easy to construct with just a few simple tools: drill with bit (to drill holes into short lengths of wood), saw (to cut wood into lengths for the desired size), hammer and nails or drill and screws based on how you want to hold the lumber together.  Feel free to cut lengths of bamboo or reed (the key is to select something hollow) or you can make the holes by drilling into pieces of wood.  Use what you have on hand including some natural materials such as pine cones and pine needles.

hollow bamboo and drilled holes create cavities

hollow bamboo and drilled holes create cavities

Whether you cal them solitary bees, native bees, or cavity bees, they are great pollinators.  Since they seek out cavities to create a nest, make a bee hotel yourself.   By providing a bee hotel, you are encouraging solitary bees to nest on your property.  Feel free to use materials you have on hand and incorporate some natural materials as well.  (A simple hotel can be created in under an hour).   More solitary bees in your garden can mean higher pollination which can lead to higher fruit and vegetable yields.  Remember, these bees need a place to live as well.

Skip the Bottle, Make Buttermilk Ranch Dressing

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It is one of the most popular dressings.  Every restaurant has it on their menu.   It makes celery sticks palatable to picky eaters.  And for the adventurous eater, a fine topping on baked potatoes.  Friends, what I am talking about is buttermilk ranch dressing.  While this is available in grocery stores across the country, it is amazingly easy to make at home.  And if you haven’t been terribly keen on this dressing, perhaps it is artificial ingredients and shelf stabilizers that have tarnished your taste?  Set down that bottle and head into the kitchen to make it from a few simple ingredients.

homemade buttermilk ranch dressing

homemade buttermilk ranch dressing

 Butter Milk Ranch Dressing Recipe

  • 1 C. buttermilk
  • 1/3 C. sour cream
  • 1/3 C. mayonnaise
  • 2 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbs. fresh chives, minced
  • 2 Tbs. fresh parsley, minced
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/8 tsp. cayenne powder

NOTE: fresh herbs provide the best flavor, but in a pinch, you can use dried herbs.  If using dried herbs, use 1/3 the of quantity listed for fresh.

Whisk together buttermilk, sour cream and mayonnaise until well combined.  Add garlic and fresh herbs.  Stir again to thoroughly combine.  Season with salt and cayenne powder.  Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour before using.  This dressing is thick and creamy.  If you prefer a thinner dressing, use a little less mayonnaise.

This fresh-tasting dressing is great for salads, but also makes an excellent partner to a basket of buffalo wings as well as a platter of fresh vegetables.  As mentioned earlier, it is also nice on baked potatoes or even stirred into mashed potatoes.  But it also dresses up a wedge of iceberg lettuce.

Let me say again… step away from condiment aisle and put down that bottle of dressing.  With a few simple ingredients, you can make your own buttermilk ranch dressing that beats the pants off of store-bought brands.

Asian Pear: The Unsung Fruit Tree

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When people think about planting fruit trees in their garden, popular fruits are at the top of the list.  Apple.  Cherry.  Peach.  Plum.  Of course, it goes without saying that it also depends on what USDA hardiness zone in which you reside.  But let me ask you this.   Have you ever thought about planting an Asian Pear tree?

Asian Pear (Pyrus pyrifolia) is native to Korea, Japan, and China.  Over the years, this pear is being cultivated in New Zealand, Australia, and the United States.  This tree grows well in USDA hardiness zones 5 – 9, although there are a few newer varieties that have been grown in zone 4.

Asian Pear tree

Asian Pear tree

This tree is becoming common at local nurseries in the United States.  For best performance, select a variety that is resistant to fire blight.  Once you get the tree home, select a well-drained location with full sun.  While many varieties require a second tree for pollination, there are self-pollinating varieties available.  It is worth noting that studies report that larger fruit and more fruit set with a second tree for pollination compared with just a single tree.  When fully mature, an Asian pear can be 10 – 20 feet tall based on the cultivar and so they work well in backyards.  One thing to keep in mind is that Asian Pears set a lot of fruit.  Lots of fruit.  Bend the limbs down lots of fruit.   As a result thinning is required to get larger pears as well as to reduce the risk of branches breaking under the heavy load of fruit.

While European Pears are typically harvested when the fruit is not quite ripe (it will continue to ripen after harvest), an Asian Pear can be left on the tree to fully ripen.  This means that you can harvest at the peak of ripeness for best flavor.  And if you have ever had a bland and not sweet Asian Pear, it was probably harvested too soon.

If you have never tried an Asian Pear, you are in for a treat.  The fruit is aromatic, has crisp flesh (similar to an apple),  sweet with a slight tartness, and is very juicy.   (Compared this to the European Pear which is sweeter, juicy, and has a soft flesh.)   While it was not traditionally baked into pies or tarts or even made into jelly, it was best enjoyed eaten fresh.   That being said, Asian Pear bake up beautifully in tarts (it is okay to break with tradition).

Asian Pears ripening on the tree

Asian Pears ripening on the tree

This fruit is commonly carried in grocery stores around the country.  And if you have seen it in the produce section, you may have also noticed that it is priced per pear, not per pound.  Some stores display it in protective covers.  The reason is this fruit bruises quite easily.  While it can be shipped, it is best if shipped short distances rather than across country.  The extra attention in handling and shipping accounts for the high price compared to standard pears that are sold per pound.  One other item worth noting is that they have a relatively long shelf life… 10 – 14 days if left on the counter at room temperature and up to four weeks in the crisper bin of the refrigerator.  If kept in cold storage, the fruit can last for up to three months.

Consider getting an Asian Pear for your backyard.  While there are self-pollinating varieties, more and larger fruit is set with the addition of a second tree.  They bear lots of fruit that is crisp, sweet with a little tartness, and are very juicy.  Handle the fruit carefully so as to prevent bruising.