Keeping bees safe and active clearly a crucial, fruitful endeavor
By Mark Blazis, telegram.com July 12, 2011
Unnoticed, unappreciated and little understood, native bees are greatly helping us, filling in for our vanishing honeybees. Back in the 1980s, when I was still a beekeeper, mites killed all my bees and those of my beekeeping friends. But a situation far more insidious — colony collapse disorder — has since killed 30 percent of America’s honeybees and threatens their very existence — and ours.
Scientists can’t pinpoint what’s killing them all, but they’ve found more than 120 pesticides in their hives. The poisons we spray on our lawns, gardens and farms can’t be good for them — or us. They may be affecting their thinking and ability to find their way back to their hives. They’ve also detected malnutrition. Our bees have far fewer native plants for a well-balanced diet today thanks to agricultural monocultures, useless grass lawns and the pathetic destruction or artificial manicuring of much of our former wild habitat. Poisons and malnutrition have apparently weakened bees’ immunities to a wide range of diseases, especially deadly viruses.
This spring, I observed few honeybees and was consequently thankful for the native bees, flies, beetles and butterflies pollinating my fruit trees. Though few in number, this second string is picking up some of the slack to pollinate our fruits and vegetables. More than 3,500 species of little-known pollen bees are assuming critical duties throughout America. Our local gardens can potentially host as many as a hundred species of them. It’s hard to believe we don’t know them.
They all make a little honey, but not enough to harvest. Unlike honeybees, they never form huge colonies. A few dozen bumblebees, for example, would be a metropolis. Their inestimable worth is in pollination.
Native bees are responsible for about $3 billion worth of American crops, as well as vast quantities of food for fruit-and-seed-eating wildlife. Without them and honeybees, 75 percent of the plants we see, enjoy and eat will disappear. We’ll be relegated to a food world of wind-pollinated wheat, rice and corn. Fruit stores and wild flowers will be a memory.
I don’t know anyone who’s been stung by native pollinating bees. They’re surprisingly nonaggressive. When they do rarely sting, the effects are rather mild. Both sexes pollinate flowers, too.
Local native bees live in wood or soil. Wood nesters include orchard, mason, leafcutter and carpenter bees. The more numerous soil or digger bees include sweat, squash and bumblebees.
Of all our native bees, bumblebees are the most social and most frequently noticed. Individually, they’re more productive than honeybees and can work at lower temperatures. They pollinate tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes and peppers. European farmers are already employing them intensively.
Some very small blackish or metallic green bees pollinate our gardens, too. They’re ground-nesting sweat bees. They may harmlessly land innocuously on our skin to sip sweat. Mating before hibernation, just like bumblebees, allows them to get a head start in spring.
Squash bees, also ground nesters, pollinate only squash and pumpkin-type plants. They competitively activate as soon as the sun appears, well before honeybees go to work.
Wood and plant-stem nesting bees are also locally numerous and gentle. Leafcutter bees, which line their nests with leaf fragments, pollinate our pea-type plants. Hyperactive, a couple hundred of them can pollinate as efficiently as a few thousand honeybees.
Our carpenter bees are much bigger, with metallic black or purplish bodies. They dig their nests in wood and tree trunks. They effectively pollinate blackberry, corn, peppers and beans. Their only drawback is a tendency to expediently cut through the base of a flower to get nectar.
Mason bees construct mud holes for their nests. Interestingly, males are formed by their eggs being laid close to the entry hole; females develop as a result of their eggs being laid farther in.
Native bees need wild, natural food when our nonnative crops aren’t flowering. Typically, they’ll pollinate willow in early spring, clover in summer, and asters in autumn. They love blackberry, dogwood, red maple, raspberry, sumac, honeysuckle, trefoil, buttercup, coneflower, daisies, dandelion, milkweed, mint, sunflower, vervain and goldenrod. All these nectar-and-pollen providing plants should be encouraged on our lands to help them.
Considering the importance and increasing vulnerability of our native pollinators, knowing them and preserving their populations as well as the wild land and plants they depend is critical. To learn how to better manage our properties — even small backyards — and to support more native pollinators, contact the Xerces Society at www.Xerces.org.