Native Bee Management for Texas Wildlife Tax Valuation

Beekeeping: An Ag Tax Exemption

On January 1, 2012, Texas law changed to include beekeeping as qualifying practice for an agricultural tax valuation. This is great news for landowners, especially small property owners. The agricultural code lays out some basics but then leaves it to each county’s central appraisal district to determine level and degree of intensity.

Texas has 254 Counties and yes there are differences between them. This is no different than other agricultural activities because each county is left to determine it own ag use requirements for its part of Texas.

Article 46. AD VALOREM TAXATION OF LAND USED TO RAISE OR KEEP BEES; SECTION 46.01 Subdivision (2), Section 23.51(2), Tax Code, is amended to read as follows: (2) “Agriculture use” – The term also includes the use of land to raise or keep bees for pollination or for the production of human food or other tangible products having a commercial value, provided that the land used is not less than 5 or more than 20 acres. Land must also have an agricultural use for 5 years before an agricultural exemption can apply.

Native Bees in Texas

Bees are true vegetarians, deriving almost all their dietary needs from flowering plants. Nectar and pollen are the primary foods that drive bee populations. The sugars in nectar provide carbohydrates for energy while pollen is the protein source for developing larvae. While some native bees may be active for only short, discrete periods (a few weeks to a month), most species benefit from sites with a diverse array of native herbaceous and woody plants that provide a succession of flowers from spring into early fall. Bumblebees, especially, require near continuous sources of nectar and pollen from early spring, all the way through summer, into fall to complete colony development.

Along with food, bees require suitable nesting sites. The nesting habits of native bees can be broadly classified into two categories, dead wood-nesters and ground-nesters. Most native bees are ground-nesters, either nesting in burrows dug of their own labor in bare soil, pre-existing underground cavities (rodent burrows), or within clumps of grass thatch. Species that nest in dead wood will use tunnels left by wood-boring beetle larvae in standing dead trees or chew their own cavities into dead wood or pithy stems.

Supplemental Shelter for Bees

The second piece of the puzzle in conserving native bee populations is to increase available nesting habitats. Ground-nesting solitary bee species need access to sun-exposed, well-drained patches of sparsely-vegetated ground. For home landscapes, leaving portions of your flower beds unmulched is one option that will provide some habitat to ground-nesting bees. Piling up well-drained sandy or sandy loam soils and/or digging pits and filling them with the same soil mix are additional options. For the latter, dig a pit one and a half to two feet deep and at least four to six feet square in an open, well-drained spot and fill with the soil mix. These sites may require annual maintenance to maintain their open character. Maintenance should be conducted in the fall or winter and not result in soil disturbance to protect bees overwintering underground.

A lack of dead wood nesting habitat can be addressed by installing wooden nest blocks; bird houses for bees essentially. Nest blocks should be eight or more inches in height and must be constructed from untreated lumber. A range of dimensions, from 2′x4′, 4′x4′, to 4′x8′, can be used. Holes of varying diameters, from 1/4” to 3/8”, should be drilled into the blocks spaced 3/4″ apart. Do not drill completely through but rather about 1/2″ from the back of the block. Attach a roof to provide protection from intense sun and rain. Face nesting blocks to the southeast to catch morning sun and affix firmly to a building, fence, or post, at least three feet above the ground. Unlike the real dangers of honeybee colonies in suburban and urban landscapes, the bees that use these nest blocks are all native solitary species that do not defend their nests.

If you are lucky, solitary bees will fill the drilled blocks with bee larvae, capping the entrance with mud or plant fibers. Blocks can be left in place throughout the winter or brought into a shed or unheated garage to protect next year’s crop of solitary bees from hungry woodpeckers. Be sure to return the blocks outdoors in late winter or very early spring to allow the bees to exit their chambers.

Management Practices for Bees

Management practices, such as prescribed burning, cattle grazing, and haying/mowing, can limit woody plant encroachment, suppress non-native plants, and enhance native herbaceous plant diversity. However, these practices should be implemented with the needs of native bees in mind as they all have the potential to reduce or even eliminate floral resources and nest sites.

When applying any management practice to a property it is critical to avoid treating an entire site in one season. A site that is burned, grazed, or hayed in its entirety in the dormant season will virtually eliminate those native bees that are overwintering in dry stalks, stems, and twigs. Implementing these same practices to an entire site during the growing season will remove nearly all nectar and pollen resources, along with potential nest sites. As a general rule, only treat 30%-50% of a site leaving the remainder untouched. Untreated areas of the property will serve as critical refuges for species to recolonize the burned, grazed, or hayed/mowed portion.

The prescriptions below are general guidelines to maintain areas with existing native bee habitat on your property. If you are actively restoring a property to a more natural state, you may find the need to conduct management outside of the time periods suggested below. Once you have reached your management goal you could shift to a schedule that better protects the bee resources you have developed.

Prescribed burns should be conducted from fall into early spring. Avoid burns during the growing season. Allow sufficient time between burns (three to six years) for thatch to accumulate and enable insect populations in burned sections to recover.

Cattle grazing should be short duration and designed to protect areas containing nectar and pollen resources. Grazing intensity may be low or high depending upon the goals of your
management plan. Low intensity, short duration grazing from fall into very early spring will have the least impacts on native bee resources. High intensity, short duration grazing may be called for in restoration efforts to increase seed germination or control non-native grasses. Avoid grazing with goats or sheep as these feed more heavily on nectar and pollen-bearing forbs.

Haying/mowing should be restricted to fall to very early spring to maximize availability of flowering plants for native bees. Avoid mowing to low as bumblebee nests are often just on the surface in accumulations of thatch. Instead, maintain a minimum cutting height of six to eight inches. If haying/mowing must be conducted during the growing season, leave blocks or strips uncut to retain some stands of flowers and nest sites. Avoid the application of chemical fertilizers as these can increase the growth of grasses to the detriment of flowering forbs.

Try to apply as many of the techniques above as possible. Reliance upon a single practice year after year, such as prescribed burning alone, can lead to loss of certain plant species and a shift to a more homogeneous community. Applying a range of practices will result in a more heterogeneous and healthy landscape. Your property’s plant communities are dynamic and your management needs to be as well.

Managing Native Bees and Habitat

Incorporate good-quality bee plants into your property that will provide a succession of lowers from early spring, summer, into fall. Robust sources of nectar and pollen during each of these three periods will meet the needs of a wide range of native bees. A good starting point is ensuring that you have at least three to five plant species flowering in each season. If you are able to accommodate even more species all the better but that range is a good starting point.

Exactly how you increase native plant diversity at your site will depend upon the current state of the area you wish to manage. In home landscapes, you can establish multiple groups of single species plantings using container-grown plants. Masses of the same species are more attractive to native bees. Groups stand out more on the landscape and make foraging more economical.

Larger properties may benefit from reseeding with native forb seed. If reseeding a large site, obtaining an as-local-as-possible seed mix is not only helpful for establishment success but also aids in the protection of existing local gene pools. Areas heavily invaded by non-native plants may require relatively intensive efforts to convert your property to a more bee-friendly state.

Conversely, your property may be in relatively good shape and would simply benefit from the addition of a few native plant species to increase floral diversity. In that case, a light disking and reseeding with a native seed mix, which falls under habitat control for the wildlife tax valuation, may be all that is required to establish ideal bee habitat.

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