Join Bee & Bloom for a hands-on workshop this Saturday:
Live demonstration of a honey bee nuc installation
Tour of the inner workings of a hive (suited up, of course!)
In-depth look at native bee nesting strategies
Walk-through of how to create the perfect pollinator habitat.
Info and $10 off to this workshop here.
What comes to mind when you hear the word “bee”?
Was it a honey bee?
Apis mellifera, the Western honey bee, is a non-native species that doesn’t just produce honey - they also play an integral role in our agricultural system. Honey bees have become the poster child of the bee plight, and thanks to worldwide “save the bees” campaigns, social awareness, support is at an all-time high. It’s wonderful!
But what about all of the other bees?....
Unfortunately, these well-intentioned efforts often fail to include the diverse range of native bees that exist. There are an estimated 4000 species of bee in North America, with more than 300 species in the Pacific Northwest alone! These bees vary greatly in appearance, size, foraging habits and nesting strategies. Some bees live in tunnels left behind by other insects, and some bees drill holes in soft wood to create their homes. Some bees pollinate numerous flower types, while others are specialists that prefer to stick to specific plants. Something they have in common, though, is the incredibly important role they play in pollinating our plants. Taking care of these valuable pollinators is critical to the well-being of our wild lands and parts of our agricultural system, too.
What are native bees?
Native bees are the unsung pollinating heroes of our land.
Due to the way they carry and disperse pollen, native bees are often far more effective and efficient at pollinating than honey bees. Some flower shapes are also more successfully pollinated by alternative bee species because of their specific body shapes and tongue lengths.
Unlike honey bees, approximately 90% of native bees live alone (we call them solitary bees). Solitary bees live in ground nests or tunnel nests, and some species can form nesting aggregations of many hundreds of individuals, although these bees nest and raise their young on their own. A notable exception is bumblebees, who live in colonies similar to honey bees but are made up of far fewer individuals, nest in the ground, and do not make honey.
Since most wild bees complete their life cycles alone, they have not developed the same defensive traits as social bees and are far less likely to be aggressive toward humans. Like all bees and stinging wasps, the females have the ability to sting while the males do not. In the wild, these bees rarely defend their nests against large mammalian predators, so they generally avoid humans all together! If you do happen to provoke a sting reaction, it feels like a pinprick and does not pack the wallop of a honey bee sting!
Most wild bees live as free-flying adults during set seasonal periods dictated by the blooming periods of the flowers they feed upon. Some bees, such as Osmia lignaria (the blue orchard mason bee), emerge early in the spring to take full advantage of flowering trees, of which they are astonishingly effective pollinators! Later in the summer months, other bee species, like the alfalfa leafcutter bees (Megachile rotundata), will emerge and take over pollinating duties. This rotating cast of characters is fascinating to observe through the spring, summer and fall months.
Why are wild bee populations important?
Just like honey bees, wild bee populations are in trouble. While population surveys are starting to provide much-needed data on the state of these pollinators, research conducted on specific populations has shown steep declines in overall numbers. The reasons are complex and varied, but the most likely causes of these alarming declines are habitat loss, forage loss, disease, and pesticide usage. As these populations decline, the ecosystems that rely on them will suffer, too. Our food production will be affected, too, as many of these bees are integral parts of our agricultural system.
How can we save all the bees?
One of the best and easiest ways to support the bees is by planting loads of bee food. Native, flowering plants with varied bloom times will provide forage for honey and native bees alike. It is best to avoid ornamental hybrids, as they often contain less pollen and nectar. If you have space, planting trees makes the biggest impact on available forage. Staggering the blooming periods is important since all bees do not emerge at the same time. Having blooming flowers during spring, summer, and fall ensures they have food available all year round!
Provide bee habitats.
Providing nesting opportunities is simple to do and gives the bees in your area a big wing up. For ground-nesting bees, consider leaving a low traffic area of your yard to the bees. Ground-nesters often prefer slightly sandy, well-drained, loose soil with little to no plant activity. You can also hang a tunnel-nesting bee house. There are numerous commercial options available, but they are super easy to DIY! Solitary bees are gentle and low-maintenance, and are a great way to have bees around without the commitment of a beehive!
Reduce your use of pesticides or better yet - go pesticide free! Pesticides meant to kill insect pests can be harmful to bee populations. Systemic pesticides that are taken up into the plants' tissues can be particularly harmful since pesticide concentrations will be found in both pollen and nectar of treated plants. Avoid these plants and seeds when shopping at garden stores and nurseries. If you must use pesticides, follow directions carefully and consider following integrated pest management techniques to limit pest species resistance and reduce harm to other organisms.
Become a bee ambassador.
Read up on bee diversity, and become familiar with the bees native to your area! Spread the word to friends, family, and neighbors. Create opportunities to teach others about wild bees and how they, too, can support them for a more fruitful future for us all.
If you’d like to learn more about bees (of all kinds!), check out Bee & Bloom’s website here.
And don't forget to join Bee & Bloom for their workshop this Saturday!