Sam Droege: Bee Mythbuster

by Catherine Howell

ARMN members, Master Gardeners, and others who had the good judgment to attend an information session at Fairlington Community Center on October 10 were rewarded with two hours of advanced training––and a lot of bee-themed standup, courtesy of Sam Droege.

Photo courtesy of Caroline Hayes

Photo courtesy of Caroline Haynes

Droege, a wildlife management expert with the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab, shared his vast wisdom about North American bees, their habits, and their undisputed value as pollinators, while busting some of the myths surrounding the often-misunderstood insects.

Based at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Droege has designed and carried out surveys and inventories of birds and amphibians, but bees are his current passion. His survey efforts involve photographing hundreds of the 4,000 North American bee species at close range and high definition and making them available to researchers and the public to view and use. These stunning photos can be seen at www.flickr.com/photos/usgsbiml

Close-up detail is very important in bee identification, as many species are indistinguishable from one another when viewed with the naked eye. Bee photography often requires prep worthy of a glamour shoot: Bees stored in liquid preservative routinely get a shampoo and blowout before their encounter with the lens.

Megachile fortis, U, Face, Jackon County, S. Dakota 2013. Photo courtesy of Sam Droege.

Megachile fortis, U, Face, Jackon County, S. Dakota 2013. Photo courtesy of Sam Droege.

Much of Droege’s presentation focused on creating a bee-friendly habitat at home. This enterprise involves many of the practices that ARMN members already follow, such as reducing or eliminating turf, planting local-ecotype native species, and including a wide range of native flowering plants that bloom from early spring into the fall. Like butterflies, many bees are 1:1 specialists, making it a good habit to plant a lot of different flower types and shapes.

Droege put to rest a number of myths, including the popular notion that eastern North America prior to European settlement was one unbroken forest that stretched from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River. Not so. For millennia, Indians used the controlled burn as a land management technique, which created widespread “savannahesque” environments of meadows and prairies with scattered, not parklike, stands of trees that allowed species such as bobwhite quail, bison, elk––and, importantly, bees––to flourish.

Meadows offer productive habitat for bee foraging, and patches of bare ground offer ideal nesting conditions for many species. Many of the plants we consider weed species also are highly prized by bees. Thus, a proactive approach to creating a bee-friendly habitat includes practices that unenlightened neighbors might find a tad off-putting: foregoing a tidy tree-and-turf landscape in favor of an overgrown, weedy one with bare spots that is mowed perhaps once a year and attracts flourishing populations of flying insects often perceived as universally aggressive and lethal. (Stinging female colonial bees share their bad PR with unstinging males and solitary bees of both sexes.)

Telling the neighbors you are fostering a “pollinators’ lawn,” a rejoinder suggested by the pro-invertebrate Xerces Society (www.xerces.org), might deflect some criticism. But don’t let them see you drill nesting holes for mason bees in your home’s wood trim, as Droege does, a bee-friendly practice that he is reluctant to share even with his wife.

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