Flower Stalks for Bee Nests


The genus Ceratina often referred to as small carpenter bees make nests in dead pithy wood and stems as shown here in a cut stem. Photo by Heather Holm.

One of the things I learned from Heather Holm‘s recent participation in the Fox Cities Book Festival was to leave the flower stems from my prairie plants standing for use by the solitary bees for their nests. What a novel idea! Heather suggested cutting the stems of the prairie plants at about 12 to 15 inches above the ground, anywhere from late May to early June — well after the overwintering insects had left their beds.

Cutting the Stem

Leaving 15 inches of stem sounds like an okay thing to do until you realize the highest most mowers cut is 6 inches. Hm-m. Now what? Heather uses a hand-held cutting implement, perhaps like a really sharp hedge shears or a grass shears to cut the stems of her plants.

That would, however, be a humongous feat with a prairie my size or larger. I do already break off the stems of the taller plants, but I typically leave the shorter plants just as they are unless I’m able to burn a quarter of my prairie in the spring. Looks like I’ll need to be a little extra diligent about breaking over stem tops of all heights.

Small carpenter bees will use broken as well as cut stems of plants for their nests. Photo by Heather Holm.

What Plants

As I’ve researched this more closely, I’ve learned not all plants work as well for bee nests as some others. Okay, that reduces the amount of cutting and breaking off. The plants that work best have long, linear, strong flower stalks and can be of varying diameters:

  • Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida)
  • Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
  • Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
  • Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida)
  • Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteria)
  • Asters (Symphyotrichum spp)
  • Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea)
  • Cupplant, Rosinweed, Compass Plant, Prairie Dock (Silphium spp)
  • Sunflowers (Helianthus spp)
  • Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium spp)
  • Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
  • Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
  • Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis)
  • Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
  • Big Bluestem (Andropogon geradii)
  • Raspberry (Rubus spp)
  • Hydrangea (Hydrangea spp)

Small carpenter bees are typically solitary, Shown here is a Ceratina bee just beginning the task of removing the pith from the stem of a plant. Photo by Heather Holm.

Woody Plants

Bees also use the pithy stems of woody plants such as:

  • Bush Honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera)
  • Elderberry (Sambucus spp)
  • Sumac (Rhus spp)
  • Walnut (Juglans spp)

So, don’t be so quick to prune dead branches from trees and shrubs, and leave some piles of twigs and branches in your garden.

You can read about this and other interesting information about bees in Heather’s book Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide. It also contains an excellent bee and plant identification guide.


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