While honey bee losses have gotten lots of attention, native bees have been largely ignored. But they are in trouble too. Scientists have seen a dramatic drop in the number of native bees, with pockets of the country containing no native bees. The Xerxes Society’s Red List tallies the native bees that are vulnerable to extinction or may already be extinct.
Why is this important? Although many creatures help in plant pollination, bees are the primary workers. In 2000, native bees pollinated roughly $3 billion worth of crops. Their talent for pollination not only affects our crops, but our ecosystems as well.
“If we lose our native bees, we will have a lower production of seeds and fruit, which will have
ripple effects on other wildlife,” says Mace Vaughan, Conservation Director of The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
There are an estimated 4,000 different species of bees in the United States (20,000 worldwide), all with tremendous diversity. They range in length from about 1/12 inch to more than 1 inch. They vary in colors and some have stripes of white, orange, yellow, or black. The good news is that most native bees will not sting or are reluctant to sting. Most native bees are solitary, and do not build wax or paper structures like we associate with honey bees or wasps.
Native Bees Are Great Pollinators
Native bees have a few talents that make them great pollinators. They can often tolerate cool temperatures and low light levels. For example, blue Orchard bees (Osmia Lingaria) were found to spend twice as long foraging as the honey bee. As a result, average fruit production in cherry orchards was more than double of that when just honey bees were used. Mason bees are also great at pollinating fruit trees. Squash and Gourd bees help to pollinate up to eighty percent of our squash, pumpkins, and melons.
Did you know that the bumblebee is one of the few bees that can pollinate a tomato plant? They use “buzz” pollination to hang from the flower and vibrate it with their flight muscles to release the pollen from the flower. Cool. Native bees generally can’t travel far, a few yards for some or up to a mile for a bumblebee. (A honey bee can travel up to five miles.) This means they need several nearby food sources.
Interestingly, native bees and honey bees may become more effective pollinators when they are close to one another. Scientists have found that native bees cause honey bees to move more often between plants, increasing their pollination rate.
I find that when people talk about native bees and honey bees, the conversation is often talked about as “either/or”. This bee is better than this bee etc. Some even argue that we don’t need the honey bee–that we can depend upon native bees. The reality is that we need both bees. And they are both dying.
How You Can Help Native Bees
Habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change are the top reasons why we are losing our native bee populations. In your yard make the decision to:
1. Stop using pesticides and herbicides. All of them. Pesticides kill bees, plain and simple. Problems in the garden can be solved without pesticides. Seek them out. Herbicides kill the plants that the bees will often feed on. Can you leave areas in your yard wild or “weedy”?
2. Plant a variety of flowers rich in pollen and nectar that attract pollinators from spring to fall. Go native. Native flowers are 4 times more likely to attract native pollinators than non-native flowers. Could you dig up part of your lawn and plant native flowers instead?
3. Leave it “bee”. Keep the ground untilled, and leave burrows in the ground. Leave wooden stumps. All can be used as nesting sites. Some bees, such as the mason bee, prefer to nest in hollow sticks. You can buy a mason bee nest or make your own by simply cutting bamboo sticks to the depth of a container, such as a coffee can. Hang near a food source and watch for the bees!
This blog will be talking a lot about how we can help the native bees. So stay tuned!