Did you know the majority of bees that pollinate our food crops and wildflowers do not live in hives and do not produce honey?
Hive-dwelling honey-producing bees did not even exist in North America until they were brought here by European immigrants in the early 1600’s. That means the honeybee, which has become important to commercial agriculture and has captured press attention due to hive collapse, is not a native insect species.
There are roughly 4,000 species of native bees and they are all in grave peril because all of them are in population decline.
Informed gardeners know and love native bumble bees, carpenter bees, mason bees, leaf cutter bees and sweat bees, to name only a few. This branch of entomology is still expanding as scientists are now beginning to understand just how important native bee are to healthy ecosystems. Many native bee species haven’t yet been thoroughly studied.
There are things that gardeners and enthusiasts can easily do to support our native bees. A gardener’s most important role in protecting and supporting bees (and other pollinators) is to grow plenty of flowers to provide them with nectar and pollen. Bees come out earlier in the springtime now than in previous years, and so it is helpful to provide early blooms to feed them.
Flowers vary in the quality and nutritional value of their pollen. Native plants provide the highest quality food for native bees.
Any gardener who supports wildlife simply must not use pesticides or other chemicals in the garden that will poison them. Pesticides and herbicides get into the ecosystem of the garden and have a profound impact on pollinators, birds and small mammals, in addition to the problem insects they target.
Bumble bees are probably the largest and most recognizable of our native bees because they are large and easily observed. They are ‘generalists’ and will visit almost any blooming flower. While other bee species will only forage from one type of plant at a time and may prefer certain flower species or flower forms, bumblebees will freely visit most flowers in bloom. Bumblebees often live in communities underground with a queen and her daughters managing the hive and caring for the young.
While some native bees prefer to live in the ground, many other species are solitary, and make nests to lay their eggs in wood or the dried stems of plants. When we thoroughly clean up our gardens each fall, cutting the drying, dying stems of perennials, picking up all the sticks and raking all the leaves, we also dispose of many larval bees and other important insects.