Bees: an Introduction to Native Bees in the Landscape

Most people do not realize that there were no honey bees in America before the European settlers brought hives from Europe. Native pollinators, especially bees other than honey bees, have been pollinating the continent’s flowering plants since long before the arrival of honey bees. Even in today’s vastly altered landscapes, our native bees continue to do the bulk  of pollination, especially when it comes to native plants.

Here are excerpts from one of the best resources I’ve found online regarding native bees from the USDA Forest Service and Pollinator Partnership (I highly recommend printing out or saving this beautifully illustrated and valuable PDF to your desktop)

Bee Basics an Introduction to Our Native Bees

What is helpful for new gardeners to know is that the honey bee, as remarkable as it is, does not know how to pollinate tomato or eggplant flowers. The honey bee also does very poorly compared to native bees when pollinating many native plants, such as pumpkins, cherries, blueberries, and cranberries. Native bees come in a wide array of sizes, shapes, and colors. They are also varied in their life styles, the places they frequent, the nests they build, the flowers they visit, and their season of activity. They remain ignored or unknown by most of us. Yet, they provide an invaluable ecosystem service, pollination, to 80 percent of flowering plants.

Bees are efficient foragers. One example is the southeastern blueberry bee, Habropoda laboriosa, a hard-working little creature capable of visiting as many as 50,000 blueberry flowers in her short life and pollinating enough of them to produce more than 6,000 ripe blueberries. At market those 6,000 blueberries are worth approximately $20 or more. Not every bee that you see flitting about may be worth $20, but all of them combined keep the world of flowering plants going. The world as we know it would not exist if there were no bees to pollinate the earth’s 250,000 flowering plants.

Bees are descended from wasps. Most wasps are carnivores; they either prey upon or parasitize other insects or spiders, and use this rich protein source to feed their young. About 125 million years ago, when the first flowering plants evolved, some wasps made a switch from hunting prey to gathering pollen for their brood. Perhaps they were hunting for insects that visited flowers and ate some of the pollen or drank the nectar along with their prey.

It didn’t take much to find the advantages of consuming pollen over hunting. Pollen is rich in proteins and doesn’t fight back, so it is easy to imagine why the bees became vegetarians. Gathering pollen and nectar requires certain adaptations different from those of hunters, so they started to change, to evolve to meet these requirements and consequently became bees.

Some bees are generalists and will use pollen from a wide variety of flowering plants. Bumble bees are generalists as they depend upon a succession of plants flowering from early spring when the queen emerges to late summer – early fall when the colony dies. Other bees have some degree of specialization in foraging; they resort to using pollen from only one or two families of flowering plants. Fortunately plant reproduction has redundancy in floral visitation already built-in. Each flowering plant species usually has a small guild of bees and other pollinators which co-evolved with them to ensure their pollination. Typically, bees collect nectar from a wider range of blossoms than they visit for pollen.

One example of floral specialization is squash bees which are efficient visitors and pollinators of cucurbit plants (squash, pumpkin, and zucchini).

Blueberry bees, globe mallow bees, and cactus bees are also floral specialists.

Some bee species are active only for a few weeks during the growing season and depend on just a few families of flowering plants for their foraging needs. Bees in the genus Macropis depend only on loosestrife flowers (Lysimachia) from which they collect oil and pollen for their larvae’s food. Loosestrife flowers however, have no nectar available so bees in the genus Macropis must visit other flowers for their nectar needs. One highly specialized bee is Anthemurgus passiflorae. This bee is only known to forage on yellow passionflower (Passiflora lutea).

A note on Loosestrife: under no circumstances plant the Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), it is an invasive alien species to North America and its sale is illegal as it invades our wetlands, displacing native flora and fauna. More on Purple Loosestrife and its erradication. Insects keep purple loosestrife under control in its native Eurasia, but in America it has no animal to control it. Experiments are under way to see if non-native insects that seem to feed uniquely on purple loosestrife can control it without threatening native species. Purple loosestrife is the only plant that is banned from sale in Virginia. Additionally, responsible gardeners would never share Purple Loostrife with their gardening friends. At the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center you will find a list of the native loosestrife plants.

There are 4,000 species of native bees in the United States. A number of government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and private individuals are creating pollinator gardens throughout the country that will benefit native bees and other pollinators. The USDA Forest Service, the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, the Pollinator Partnership, Urban Bee Gardens at U.C. Berkeley, and the Xerces Society each supply information to those who want to start gardening for pollinators or improving bee habitat in general.

8 Ways to Help Native Bees in Your Garden

  1. Plant a pollinator garden.
  2. Avoid pesticides or choose non-chemical solutions to insect problems.
  3. Provide a source of pesticide-free water and mud. A dripping faucet, mud puddle, or birdbath attracts butterflies and beneficial insects. Mud is an important nesting material for some bee species.
  4. Plant native plants from your eco region.
  5. Provide a variety of native flowering trees, shrubs, and wildflowers that bloom successively throughout the seasons.
  6. Reduce the size of the lawn by creating pollinator gardens will benefit native pollinators and other species of wildlife. It is possible to have a lawn that is good for native bees while being esthetically pleasing.
  7. Provide nesting habitats for bees.
  8. Build or buy your own bee houses.

Helping native bees is essential to our continued survival, health, and well-being. These animals benefit us all because of the invaluable ecosystem services they provide to the environment and to our farms, forests, and gardens. Not only do they pollinate most of our flowering plants, their bodies feed other wildlife and their ground-nesting behaviors aerate and enrich soils. They enrich and sustain our lives. The observation of native bees can become a lifelong pastime and pleasure. Bee Basics: an Intro to Native Bees in the Landscape | Sacred HabitatsBecome involved.

Observe bees with close focusing binoculars; plant a small pollinator garden; or help a neighbor, student, or family member drill small holes in scrap lumber to create a bee house. Join a pollinator and plant-friendly organization to learn more about pollinators and their flowers, like the Pollinator Partnership (http://www.pollinator.org).

Become a pollinator observer as a citizen scientist and report your observations. Some of our bees are declining, and your findings are invaluable to understanding the big picture. Most importantly, get outdoors with your children and experience the amazing natural and urban habitats that we share with pollinators and flowering plants. Do your share to make sure that this precious legacy continues.

You might also like to read:

Bee Resources

Bee Houses

Additional Reading

Bee Families, Description & Classification:

Bee Conservation

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