When most people think of bees, they immediately conjure images of the industrious honey bee or the adorable bumblebee. They might imagine enjoying a spoonful of honey on crackers, or contemplate the interesting social behavior of a bee hive. However, these concepts apply to only a small minority of bee species.
The United States is home to approximately 4,000 wild bee species, a staggering number. Almost all of these bees are solitary. Almost none produce honey. As for the honey bee? It isn’t even native to America. Rather than evolving here, the honey bee was brought to America by European colonists in 1622. As time passed, more and more colonists brought over various honey bee varieties to cultivate. Eventually, the descendants of these domesticated bees would spread into the wild across America, where they can now be found buzzing around gardens from Maine to California.
While honey bees are charismatic, helpful, and interesting, they take a back seat in our new exhibit at the Bruce Museum, Wild Bees: Photographs by Paula Sharp and Ross Eatman. This exhibit explores the small scale world that native bees inhabit and showcases their beauty and diversity in form and lifestyle.
What’s so great about wild bee species? All sorts of things!
Native bees know how to think outside the hive when it comes to finding or making their homes. Some are diggers, and will either live individually or as a cooperative group in holes they excavate themselves. Some of these bee-dug tunnels can be over a foot in length and architecture varies from simple tunnels to multiple nesting chambers.
Other wild bees prefer to nest above ground in holes and crevasses. Most of these species seek out pre-existing holes. Some find refuge in hollow stems. Others will look for holes bored into soft wood, left behind by the beetles or other insects. A few bee species, the carpenter bees, can actually carve their own tunnels into wood using their powerful mandibles. However, home owners don’t have much to fear from these crafty bees. They are repelled by paint and other commercial hardeners, and generally only bore into wood that is already softened by age or rot.
Some wild bee species prefer to build their homes in rocky crevasses. When they find a likely spot, they’ll construct nesting cells within the rock shelter. Whether they find their home or make their home, wild bees are adept home improvers, making additional construction with mud, leaves, or packed wood dust.
While wild bees are fascinating, they are also very important to both humans and the environment. Their value is exceptionally strong where pollination is concerned. Honey bees pollinate many of our crops, but some are far better served by wild bees. Wild bees almost always outperform honey bees when it comes to pollinating crops that originated in the Americas, like squash, cranberries, pumpkins, and blueberries. They are essential pollinators outside of the agricultural sphere as well, and pollinate uncountable numbers of wild native plants.
Among the 4,000 species of wild bees exist countless variations in form and lifestyle. Unfortunately, many of these lifestyles are under threat.
Colony collapse disorder is widely researched and reported on in honey bees, and wild bees are facing similar problems. Nearly 1 in 4 wild bee species are considered at risk for extinction, due to a combination of pesticide use, climate change, and habitat loss. Though it’s obvious that our ecosystem would suffer if wild bees went extinct, it’s sometimes less obvious what can be done on an individual level to help them.
As it turns out, it can be surprisingly easy to help wild bees. Try out a few of these ideas, and both your local bees and the flowers they pollinate will benefit.
Preserve wild space
If you have parts of your yard that are a bit wild, keep them that way! Native bees can nest in rock piles, decaying wood, and piles of bush. Not only can you create more habitat for wild bees this way, you can cut down on your yard work too.
Make your garden bee-friendly
Bees, both wild and domesticated, are often accidental casualties of pesticide use in commercial farms and home gardens. Pesticides are considered a major factor in bee decline, so converting to more natural methods of pest control can really make the difference for your local bee populations. Even if you only spray one patch of your garden, pesticides can drift over an entire yard.
About 70% of wild bee species nest underground, and tilling a garden can majorly disrupt local wild bee nests. For best bee practices, tilling should be avoided entirely. Squash bees are ground-nesting bees that account for 80% of squash pollination. When no-till farming practices were put into place with squash crops, there were three times as many squash bees present!
If you are unable to forgo tilling entirely, allowing patches of bare ground to exist in your yard (without mulch) can also provide habitat to burrowing bees.
One more way to help wild bees in the garden is to plant more native species of flowers. It’s especially helpful if you plant flowers with a variety of shapes and bloom schedules, to appeal to the widest variety of bee species.
Add bee houses
For bees that like to live in tunnels, a bee house can provide them with an excellent resting place. Bee houses come in all shapes, sizes, and materials. You can make your own using one of the many tutorials available online, or buy one pre-made.
Even something as simple as a bundle of hollow plant stems can provide solitary bees a place to rest their weary wings. The image to the left shows a bee house with a variety of spaces for different bee species.
If you want to learn more about wild bees and how to help them, come to our exhibit before it closes, on November 11, 2018.
To learn more about honey bees and honey bee conservation, check out our previous science blog here.
- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow