The plight of the vanishing honey bee has received a lot of attention in recent years, and with good reason. The pollination that bees provide to crops is essential to our agricultural systems. But as important as the honey bees are, that species is not the only bee out there threatened by climate change and the use of pesticides.
There are native bees in our region (the honey bee is a transplant from Europe) that are actually more effective pollinators of our native plants, simply because they evolved at the same time, says naturalist Tim Stanley. And since native bees don’t have the capacity to travel much farther than our own backyards, creating the right habitat for them close to home will ensure that they’ll thrive here, and in the process, help create that sustainable future that we all want.
Stanley is a former forest ranger who became a backyard honey bee-keeper at one point. Currently a director at the Fresh Air Fund’s Sharpe Reservation in Fishkill, he helps manage the property and runs the school programs year-round, along with the farm for the youth groups who come up from the City each summer to learn about agriculture and healthy eating practices. His fascination with bees and his focus on outdoor education led Stanley to create Native Beeology in 2014: a website intended to foster an understanding and appreciation of our native bee pollinators and to inspire people to take action on their behalf. He frequently gives talks to groups on the topic.
There are more than 400 species of bee in New York State, and close to 4,000 species in North America. Farmers will often transport hives of honey bees to their farms to act as pollinators for the crops, but Stanley points out that creating the right conditions for native bees to flourish will ensure that they’ll be around when we need them.
Encouraging farmers to develop diversity in their plantings is part of the strategy, since year-round food for the bees is crucial. “Apples bloom for just a few weeks, so bees can’t survive on large monoculture farms. Creating buffer strips [that retain soil and reduce erosion] is important, along with planting wildflowers that bloom to feed the bees. And in planting flowers for bees, we’re also planting for other pollinators, creating biodiversity that has a ripple effect to the environment.”
Bees in general are better pollinators than butterflies, which don’t have the unique body characteristics that bees have, or their particular need for the pollen. “Beetles are pollinators, too, but they’re eating the pollen,” says Stanley. “And butterflies and flies are going for the nectar. But bees, while they evolved from wasps – which are carnivores, eating other insects and things – are vegetarian. They eat the pollen for protein and nectar for carbohydrates.”
The bees collect pollen in “baskets” on their legs or abdomens, depending on the species, to bring back to the nest. After the bee visits a flower, she grooms herself and brushes the pollen gathered on her body down toward her hind legs, where, mixed with a little nectar, it will be held in place by hairs in the pollen basket. And in the act of collecting pollen to give to their larva, it gets stuck on their fuzzy bodies and transferred to plants as they go from flower to flower. “When you think of cross-pollination, bees are the most effective,” says Stanley. “Butterflies have long tongues, so they may not come into as direct contact with pollen as the bees do.”
Some native bees are specialists, like the squash bee, which only pollinates flowers in the squash family, or the longhorn bee (named for the particularly long antennae on the males) that favors the sunflower.
Several native bees are named in reference to their lifestyle. Cellophane or polyester bees nest in the ground, the female bees making shallow brood cells only four to six inches deep, which they line with a waterproof, cellophane-like substance, allowing them to nest in very wet areas. This material has been studied as a substitute for plastic, says Stanley, that can decompose in as little as five years. And mason bees are named for the mud walls that they make to partition off their brood cells in naturally occurring gaps, such as between cracks in stones or other cavities. Some prefer to live in hollow stems or holes in trees made by wood-boring insects.
“When most people think of bees, they think of honey bees, living in perennial hives,” says Stanley, “but that’s really atypical of how the majority of bees live their lives. With the exception of bumble bees, which live in hives, most of the native bees live a solitary lifestyle. Thirty percent of them live in a hole inside of a tree or a hollow stem, and 70 percent of them live underground.”
Native bees also provide the very effective “buzz pollination” that cannot be performed by honey bees. “Look at the tomato flower in your garden on a summer day,” says Stanley. “The bumble bee will be hanging upside down on it, vibrating its wing muscles so rapidly, it literally shakes the pollen out of the tomato plant, like shaking a pepper shaker.” For every tomato you’ve ever eaten, he adds, “thank a bumble bee.” Buzz pollination is also important for blueberries and cranberries, as well as azaleas and eggplant.
Unlike the honey bees, with a single egg-laying queen, every female is an egg-layer in the solitary bee population. Hundreds of them each lay between six and 12 eggs, and they’re only active for a short period of time. Not having a queen and an egg supply to defend is also the reason that you won’t get stung by native bees, Stanley says, unless you happen to step on one or pick it up and squeeze it.
“The only native bees to sting when disturbed are yellowjackets or hornets, which, like honey bees, live in large social hives. Stinging evolved to protect the hive, and since native bees have nothing to protect, they’re not aggressive. And even though the females have stingers, their stingers can’t penetrate human skin.” When early European colonists brought over honey bees, he says, the Native Americans called them “the white man’s stinging insect.”
Many times we don’t even notice the native bees around us, because they’re solitary and some are very small. While larger bees can fly a mile or more, these small bees have flight ranges of 200 yards to about a half-mile. “Even a small backyard can be the whole world to a tiny little bee,” says Stanley. “They’re going to stay in one little area, so what you do in your yard can have a big impact.”
The Native Beeology site lists a number of ways in which, “one backyard at a time,” we can all boost the native bee population. Those ways include things that take a little effort, like putting up nesting boxes for the 30 percent of native bees that will find such housing a good substitute for the hollow spaces in which they usually nest, or providing exposed, undisturbed soil and a source of water for the 70 percent of bees that nest underground.
But the most important action that people can take, says Stanley, is to talk to our nurseries and demand plants grown without neonicotinoids. As the name suggests, the substance is related to nicotine, and often used in pesticides on plants found in big-box stores. “Plants absorb it through the roots, the seed, the leaves, the stem, the flower…ultimately in the pollen. A large dose of it is fatal to bees, and in smaller doses it causes neurological disorders; it disorients them.”
Some cities and towns nationwide and places in Canada and Europe have banned the use of neonicotinoids, says Stanley, with Maryland the first state that will be neonicotinoid-free by 2018. Native Beeology contains a list of local growers who have committed to selling plants grown without neonicotinoids, including Adams Fairacre Farms, the Catskill Native Nursery, American Beauty Native Plants sold at Blue Seal in Fishkill, the Hudson Valley Seed Company and the Rainbow’s End Butterfly Farm and Nursery in Pawling. “The list is by no means complete,” says Stanley, “but until laws are created that ban neonicotinoids, we need to know our nurseries, and ask. People have a lot of power when it comes to how they spend their money. Adams Fairacre Farms said they decided to do it after customer demand.”