Blog

Agapostemon virescens: this green metallic sweat bee loves your garden

by Chloé Markovits and Nicholas Dorian

Ask a kid to draw a bee, and they will make it big and fuzzy, with black-and-yellow stripes. But did you know that not all bees look like that? One of the most common bees in eastern North America is slender, shiny, and green!

The bi-colored striped sweat bee (Agapostemon virescens) is a stunning green bee that you can find in your garden all year long. It is so beloved that it’s the official bee of Toronto. It lives mostly in the Midwestern and Northeastern United States (but with sightings from coast to coast). To help you spot one, let’s review its life cycle, flower preferences, and appearance. For a quick guide, reference our A. virescens field ID tips.

A. virescens are active for most of the growing season—typically from mid-May through late October—consisting of two generations of females. In mid-May, mated females emerge from hibernation and build nests underground. They use their natal nest or dig a new hole in sparsely vegetated soils. Mulched garden beds, sandy paths, patchy lawns are suitable nesting habitat.

Agapostemon virescens live in underground communal nests.
Agapostemon virescens live in underground communal nests. Females take turns guarding the nests from unwanted intruders like parasitic flies and cuckoo bees. PC: Nicholas Dorian

Unlike the social societies of honey bees or bumble bees, Agapostemon nest in communal societies of egalitarian females. Like apartment complexes in the human world, many females (up to 30!) will live in a single nest, but each will take care of her own offspring independently. A nest has one entrance (a hole at the surface of the ground) which is used by multiple females.

Ground-nesting bees are at risk from predators that aim to steal the nest contents. But Agapostemon has figured out a defense strategy: while some females are out foraging, at least one always stays back to guard the nest. Females take turns guarding the nest, and the presence of a guard reduces the chance of a visit from an unwanted intruder.

While out foraging, A. virescens females gather pollen and nectar. Females can be found on a wide variety of plants—from roses, to strawberries, to sunflowers—but in general have a penchant for plants in the Asteraceae family. In particular, summer-active females love collecting pollen from purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), cup-plant (Silphium perfoliatum), false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), and lance-leaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata).

Agapostemon virescens loves asters like cup-plant.
Agapostemon virescens loves asters! Cup-plant (Silphium perfoliatum) is one of their favorite plants. PC: Nicholas Dorian

In late-July to early-August, a second generation of A. virescens emerges. This generation consists of both males and females. Males cloud around flowers waiting for the chance to mate. They are not welcome back in their natal nests, so males find places to sleep outside. Sometimes, males will sleep together in aggregate in sheltered nooks and crannies– bee slumber parties!

Fall-active females sip nectar from flowers in order to survive winter, but do not build nests or lay eggs. Look for fall-active A. virescens on asters like New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), goldenrods (Solidago spp.), and sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale). When temperatures drop, mated females enter hibernation in their natal nests until spring, and males die.

A. virescens females can be easily identified on flowers or with photographs taken with a phone camera. Look for a metallic green thorax and black-and-white striped abdomen.  Males are trickier to distinguish from males of other Agapostemon species but can be identified by their metallic green thorax, black-and-yellow abdomen, and the lack of dark streak on their hind femur.

Agapostemon virescens females can be easily identified via the combination of a metallic green thorax and a black-and-white abdomen.
Female Agapostemon virescens can be easily identified via the combination of a metallic green thorax and a black-and-white abdomen. PC: Nicholas Dorian

If you’re lucky enough to spot one, take a moment to appreciate its fascinating life cycle. Is a male darting around in search of a mate? Or a female working hard to collect pollen for her offspring? Is she hovering close to the ground? That might mean you’ve found her nest! Despite its abundance, there is still much to be learned about this bee. What soils do they like for nesting? How far do they forage? How long do females live after provisioning nests in early summer? Why do females prefer aster pollen over all others? TPI scientists are hard at work addressing some of these questions.

Pipevine Swallowtails and the case for caterpillar gardening

When you think of gardening for pollinators, you most likely think of beautiful flowering plants which attract bees, butterflies, and other insects by offering copious amounts of nectar or pollen. But flowers cannot give all pollinators the food they need. Butterflies in particular can be very picky when deciding what to eat when first starting out their lives as caterpillars. Most butterfly species have evolved to specialize feeding on one or a handful host plants. In a sense, when it comes to supporting butterfly communities, providing ample host plants for these soon-to-be-butterflies could be just as beneficial as planting nectar flowers for adults!

Pipevine swallowtail eggs are laid in small clusters so that when they emerge, these caterpillars work together eating leaves in small groups

The Pipevine swallowtail Battus philenor is one butterfly that benefits tremendously from the gardening of its favorite plant, Pipevine Aristolochia, after which it is named. Both Pipevine and the butterfly with which it shares its name is native across eastern North America, including Massachusetts. The plant itself is highly toxic and could cause severe kidney problems or even cancer if ingested by humans, but Pipevine swallowtail caterpillars could not care less.

These caterpillars have evolved not only to cope with the toxins in the plants, but to actively seek them out. Pipevine swallowtails, like many other butterflies, including Monarchs and their beloved milkweed, acquire the toxic chemicals present in their host plant and sequester them. As caterpillars they build of reserves of this chemical making them unpalatable to potential predators for the rest of their life. This is part of the reason many butterflies display such bright and captivating scales – it can be a signal to predators that nothing good will come from eating them.

In the right conditions Pipevine can scale great heights clinging to trees or other supports

Though these caterpillars cannot get enough of Pipevine, the adult swallowtails themselves do not nectar on the flowers it produces. Pipevine, like the name suggests, produces curved flowers that resemble a smoking pipe which is not conducive for a butterfly proboscis. Dutchman’s pipe Aristolochia macrophylla, is the most common species in eastern North America, and produces small tubular flowers with a small circular entryway. Into that entryway go flies which are actually attracted to the flower’s fragrance. Upon entering the narrow pipe, the flies get a little stuck, catching some of the flower’s pollen and carrying it with them until they end up in another flower which they help fertilize. After fertilization, the plant produces great seed pods which, when rooted and grown, will provide more food for those hungry caterpillars.

Before you start thinking this toxic, fly-attracting plant might not be the right fit for your garden, consider that Pipevine has been an immensely popular ornamental plant since Victorian times. It is an ideal option for trellises, fences or pergolas, providing plenty of shade when mature! If you are interested in attracting these beautiful butterflies to your home or garden in the future be sure to water your Pipevine as it needs lots of water and give it a place to climb. Be sure, too, to get Aristolochia macrophylla specifically, as some species will not support these caterpillars or might even be invasive – moreover macrophylla will provide the best shade (it is given the Greek name meaning ‘large leaf’) and will attract some marvelous butterflies looking for the right place to lay their eggs.

Adult Pipevine swallowtails have a remarkable coloration, with black and iridescent blue wings that have orange and white spots on the underside (Photo credit: John Flannery)

Container gardening for pollinators

In the city, outdoor gardening space can be hard to find. Backyards are replaced by balconies, but this doesn’t mean you can’t still garden for pollinators. You just have to get creative about it. This National Pollinator Week, TPI has tips and tricks for how you can support urban pollinators with container gardening whatever your outdoor space looks like (even if it’s just a windowsill!).

1. Choose perennial native plants. Apart from a few species with deep taproots, many native plants will thrive in containers. Since they’re perennial, your plants will come back year after year, and support pollinators without any extra cost. Here are some good options that TPI has had success with:

  • swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
  • anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
  • lance-leaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)
  • smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve)
  • great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
  • cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
  • blazing star (Liatris spicata)
  • virginia mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum)
  • purple coneflower (Echinaecea purpurea)
Blazing star (Liatris spicata), aka gayfeather, is a favorite of pollinators and easily grown in a container! PC: Flickr, CC.

2. Combine plants with complementary bloom times to have the greatest impact. For your first container, try picking three plants: one that blooms in early summer, one in mid-summer, and one in fall.

3. Deep containers are your friend. Choose containers at least 16” deep to allow your native plants to build strong root systems and thrive for years to come.

4. If you only have space for shallow planters (<12” deep), annual or biennial native plants are a great option. These plants don’t invest in a deep root system and can survive in shallower soils. Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), spotted horsemint (Monarda punctata), and partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) are three good choices.

5. Flowering herbs are also a great (and tasty) option for small spaces. TPI previously waxed the benefits of letting your herbs for pollinators, and the same applies here. Dill, lavender, thyme, mint, and cilantro are all popular herbs that do well in containers and favorites of pollinators.

Container herb gardens can be a win-win! Flowering mint feeds all sorts of pollinators, like this metallic green sweat bee (Agapostemon sp.), and you can enjoy mint leaves in sun tea and watermelon coolers! PC: Nick Dorian.

6. Water often. Soil in containers dries out faster than those growing below ground, and as your plants become root bound, they will need water more frequently. As always, water the soil rather than the leaves.

7. Don’t fertilize. Native plants are adapted to soils that are low in nutrients, and adding fertilizer will result in many big leaves and not many flowers. Amend store-bought potting mix with perlite and sand to create a well draining medium for your plants. Leave the manure and kelp fertilizer for your veggies!

8. Protect your container plants over the winter with 3-4” of leaf mulch, by moving your planter to a less exposed area, and potentially covering with a tarp. The key is to keep the soil warm enough so the roots don’t freeze through.