Sun-ripened tomatoes, char-grilled zucchini and peach cobbler dazzle our summertime potlucks and picnics. The summer season brings some of the most delicious, nourishing foods—especially if you’ve grown and picked them yourself at the peak of ripeness. But the summer sun and rain alone aren’t enough to bring delicious foods to our table. If it weren’t for the pollinating insects all around us, we wouldn’t have much to eat. Most of us know how important pollinating insects are. It’s been estimated one out of every three mouthfuls of food or beverage we humans consume requires the help of a pollinating insect or animal.
Bees are especially helpful, which is why honey bees were brought to North America and became part of our agricultural system while our country developed. Honey bees have caught our attention in recent years as beekeepers report hive failure due to colony collapse disorder. The loss of honey bees is certainly concerning, but our native bees are facing even more destruction and some are going extinct as you read this.
There are around 4,000 different species of bees native to North America. This diverse group of insects includes mason bees, sweat bees, carpenter bees, squash bees, and bumble bees to name a few. Bees native to North America have evolved over time along with our native plants. This relationship means native bees are extremely effective pollinators of native wildflowers and flowering trees, as well as many agricultural flowering plants such as eggplant, tomatoes, and squash. Native bees are also responsible for pollinating fruits such as apples, strawberries, blueberries, and cranberries. We depend on the work of native bees to feed us, but they are also feeding the greater ecosystem as well. Plants are the base of our food chain, and bees help bring that food to the rest of us.
Have you ever grown squash? Or noticed the creamsicle-orange colored flowers of the squash plant? If you pay attention to squash flowers, chances are you have seen a native squash bee. Squash bees are in the group of miner bees, which are native ground-nesting bees. Often they are found nesting in the ground right under the squash plant. At first glance, squash bees might look just like a European honey bee. Take a careful look at their behavior, and you’ll know which is which right away. Squash bees dive directly into the squash flower, wasting no time at all in collecting nectar and pollen. Honey bees will hover around the flower then land and visit the flower at a more leisurely pace. If you visit a pumpkin patch this fall, think of the squash bees responsible for helping that pumpkin grow.
Now let’s consider a native bee you might be more familiar with. Bumble bees are a common group of bees found in gardens, public parks, and even your backyard. What is the first thing you notice about a bumble bee? Probably its large size, and furry hairs covering its body. Or maybe you heard the bumble bee before seeing it; a bumble bee’s loud buzzing vibrations allow this flying furry creature to cause an explosion of pollen when visiting a flower. The hairs capture a LOT of the pollen on certain plant species, which makes bumblebees like the pollination super heroes of the bee world– at least for certain plants. Sadly, two of Ohio’s native bumble bees, the rusty patched and the yellow banded bumble bee are both listed on The Xerces Society’s “Red List of Bees”. These two bumble bees are included on this list because they’re at high risk of extinction.
In spring of 2014, WIRED published an article by Gwen Pearson stating that, “Incredible losses in native bee diversity are happening–in one study, 50% of Midwestern native bee species disappeared over a 100 year period.” Back in the 1990s, the yellow-banded bumble bee was the most abundant native bee in Wisconsin. Today, this species makes up less than 1% of Wisconsin’s native bee population.
Let’s consider their habitat. What do you see as you drive between work and home, or when you travel to see family or take a vacation? What does the landscape look like? Chances are you see roads, paved parking lots among buildings, homes with grass lawns, and agricultural fields of one type of plant. Having so much land converted to human uses means habitat loss for our native bees. If our bees don’t have a place to nest or feed, we will lose them. But we can’t afford to lose them. The Xerces Society reported that pollinator-dependent crops in the United States were valued between $18-27 billion in 2003; of course this number is much higher today. If our bees can’t find the habitat they need, the effect on our crops, wild plants, and everything up the food chain could be disastrous.
Bees need the native plants they evolved with, so it’s important to include these plants along with our crops and gardens. Native plants are more resistant to weather extremes so they provide food for native bees when crops and gardens fail. A variety of native plants will also provide a longer season of more consistently available food. Cornell University recently found their apple orchards could be completely pollinated by native bees. Cornell researchers believe the 100+ species of native bees thrive there because of all the natural meadows and forests surrounding their orchards.
Native bees are experiencing habitat loss, reduction of consistent nectar sources, battle pesticides, and also have to compete with honey bees for limited resources. We truly need these bees for our own health, and our native bees need our help now more than ever.
How can you and I help these bees?
Here are three simple ways we can be more mindful of bees in our yards:
1) Pesticides aren’t necessary to have a nice lawn and garden. Usually, the more insects you have, the fewer pests you’ll find. Nature has a way of balancing things out if there is enough diversity of species. Many bees, wasps, and ants will help control insects that eat plants.
2) Plant some native flowers among your flower and garden beds. You don’t need to get rid of your hostas and other ornamental plants to help bees. Simply adding some native flowers will bring more diversity of insects to your yard. Try flowers such as purple coneflower, wild bergamot, and black eyed susan if you have a lot of sun. If your yard is shady, try wild geranium, large-leafed aster, and zigzag goldenrod. If you have a lawn, you can leave some of the native flowers and plants among your grass and still have plenty of green.
3) Provide some native bee nesting sites. Native bees use a variety of nesting sites. Some prefer to burrow in the soil, so leaving some flower beds with simple leaf mulch will allow them to get into the ground. Hard wood chips can prevent them from accessing the soil. If you like the look of mulch in the front, perhaps provide some places of leaf mulch in the backyard. If you have trees, you can make a leaf pile in the fall, and then you’ll have FREE leaf mulch in the spring. Some native bees use the more unkempt places in our yards for nesting. If you have a shed or compost pile area in your backyard, consider leaving an old tree stump or brush for the bees. Do you live in an apartment or condo? There are some beautiful bee nesting box designs that create habitat while allowing you to show off your creativity as well!
Consider our native bees when planning what to do with the outdoor space you have; every square foot could help instead of hinder these insects that keep us fed. There are so many organizations willing and able to help you enhance your space to benefit both you and the bees. — Colleen Sharkey
For more information on helping our native bees:
Colleen Sharkey has been a nature enthusiast and informal educator for more than 10 years. She lives in Columbus, near a couple of beautiful ravines that offer habitat to everything from nesting barred owls and red foxes to migrating warblers. Colleen is currently a Naturalist with Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks.
Native bee photos courtesy of Heather Holm