Native Bees

Posted on 19. Jun, 2015 by in Grays Corner, Recent News

Bees are probably the most important insects to the human experience. It goes without saying, then, that the epidemic of “colony collapse disorder” affecting honeybee populations around the world is making headlines and becoming the subject of TV documentaries. In 2013, the average beekeeper lost 45% of his or her colonies over the course of the winter. Alarming as this may be, it often overshadows what is happening to our native bees.

There are hundreds of species of native bees in North Carolina alone, including bumblebees, carpenter bees, mason bees, and leaf-cutting bees. While they all belong to the same superfamily, the Apoidea, there are some important differences. None of the native bees store honey in the way that honeybees do, and none except the bumblebees live in colonies with workers and a single queen.

However, native bees are actually more efficient than honeybees at pollinating many native plant species. Because honeybees are imported from Europe and Asia, they preferentially feed on the nectar of flowers from those areas, and are not as good at pollinating plants native to North America. Fruits such as blueberries, tomatoes and cranberries have historically been pollinated by native bees.

But time is running out for the native bees. Because none of them have been “domesticated” in the way that honeybees have, they must nest in the natural habitats they have always used. These, however, are under increasing threat from industry and construction. This is especially troublesome regarding carpenter bees, which burrow into dead wood to lay eggs; with forests being destroyed they often resort to laying eggs in the outer walls of houses, becoming pests in the process.

Additionally, many farmers now use pesticides on their crops to keep herbivorous insects from feeding on them. This often has the unintended side effect of killing desired insects as well, and is likely to be a factor not only in honeybee colony collapse disorder, but also in the decline of native bees. Finally, many colonies of honeybees in North America have become “feral”—that is, they now live in the wild. These feral colonies often occupy the nest sites that native bees would otherwise be able to use, thereby driving their population lower.

With the native bees dying out, many specialized plants in these areas will be left with nothing to pollinate them, and thus unable to reproduce. Fortunately, there are things one can do to help. “Native beekeeping” has become something of a trend among eco-savvy individuals in parts of the United States, and it involves setting up wooden blocks with holes drilled in them for native stingless solitary bees to nest in. You won’t get rewarded with honey or beeswax, but you’ll get something a lot more valuable in the long run-a garden of native vegetation.

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