Recent declines in honeybee populations have raised much concern about the fate of large-scale crop production, but this is only one fraction of the reality. Wild bees (native bees) hold much of the fate of crop pollination by the tiny hooks at the tips of their tiny feet.
I took this photo while visiting the Denver Botanic Gardens this summer.
The convenient part about honeybees is, they are portable, and are transported across the US every year on huge semi trucks, costing farmers thousands of dollars to pollinate crops. The trouble with this model is honeybees were never meant to enter into a contract of strenuous traveling conditions, trapped inside their hives for miles on the back of semi trucks. Did you know a honeybee will not go to the bathroom inside the hive? Imagine what this means as they travel for hours on the semi truck trapped inside. Heaven forbid the semi tip over and destroy hundreds of hives, and thus hundreds of thousands of bees in the process. I won’t go on and on about this, but I think you get it, this model isn’t natural, as is the case with many man-made systems. A very enlightening book on this topic is, “The Beekeeper’s Lament,” by Hannah Nordhaus.
Portable pollinators are a wonderful tool in a collapsing natural world, but what happens when the tool you rely on begins to fail? Saying “oops” won’t cut it once all the wild troops are lost. This leads me to my point.
I took this beauty in my garden this summer. This is a Hylaeus bee, a solitary bee that nests in existing holes.
Wild bees are already living across the globe, and fully capable, if not more capable than honeybees, of pollinating crops we rely on for various resources. The challenge with wild bees is, we actually have to take care of the environment around crops to nurture them. What? We can’t manhandle these little creatures? Though, some are managing bumblebees, and some solitary bees, we shouldn’t. They live happily, in large populations when the conditions are right for them, but conditions are becoming less and less ideal for our wild bees.
I captured this photo of a digger bee this summer, and yes, they nest underground.
Not all crops can be pollinated by Apis (honeybees) alone. Many require buzz pollination, or tiny stature to get to the hidden resources. Cornell University (Article 1) has some ongoing studies on some of our favorites, such as pumpkin, apples, and strawberries. Wild bees are, just as I have always suspected, turning out to be the unrecognized heroes in the game of crop pollination.
Bumblebees are buzz pollinating superheroes. I love this photo I took!Tomato blooms hide their pollen inside fused anthers, and require buzz pollination to break it free, a skill many wild bees have, but not Apis. My photo too:)
You see, wild bees predominantly nest underground, in wood, or soft pithy plant material, and they need a variety of native blooming plants for food. We discard much of their habitat needs, because it’s too messy; we need to mulch everything; or we need more acreage for crops.
More photos taken by me.
Let’s talk about “messy”. Nature is messy by human standards, everything is mixed together, nothing is in order, things grow together, and no one ever vacuums! Well, that’s what I call a beautifully perfect mess that contains a web of interconnected support mechanisms organized to support each piece resting in what we call a “mess”.
Dead plant material and wooden stumps are not neat and clean, so we remove them, destroying the habitat of thousands of little creatures living and developing inside. Weeds are messy; they mess up the perfectly green carpet we call a lawn, so we spray them. What do all weeds have in common? They all produce a flower, which feeds pollinators, and this includes wild bees. Many of the weed species also bloom earliest and latest in the growing seasons.
This beautiful butterfly found a dandelion (a weed) in the midst of all the grass just yesterday-October! Yes, this is my photo too.
We remove the additional nesting resources by tilling the soil, or covering bare dirt with mulch. Wild bees look for bare patches of soil to dig tunnels and lay eggs destined to emerge the following year. These tunnels can be as shallow as 12 inches! If we dig those babies up, they cannot carry on, making future generations. What if those wild bees are specialists to a native plant that relies on them for survival? I think you understand what I am getting at, nature likes the mess she’s made, and we should learn to appreciate all the little pieces fitting into that so-called mess.
This photo I shot of a Lassioglossum bee is evidence of the superhero responsible for my 100% yield on my little green pepper plant. I never saw a single Apis near these blooms, but little Lass was there!
Wild bees not only need nesting resources, but food is essential for all parts of spring, summer, and fall. Flowers are food to bees. If the only floral resource available in the landscape blooms once during the year, there isn’t enough food for wild bees, and no one is going to load those bees onto a semi truck to get them to more forage. It’s just not possible, with the 4000 different species with countless nesting habits, and even differing times of emergence. Hedgerows rich with flowering vegetation woven into farmland, and yards loaded with tri-season blooming trees and plants in urban settings are both important solutions to nurture wild bee populations.
Squash bees, otherwise known as Peponapis, love squash blooms so much they will dive into the flowers face first for long periods on time, lapping up squash nectar. They may even nest directly under the squash plants. They are squash specialists, and the best pollinators of squash plants. Another photo of mine.
I am not suggesting you turn your yard into an overgrown nightmare, just asking you allow a variety of blooms to grow so wild bees have food, and you leave some nesting resources sprinkled about. You’d be surprised at all the additional wildlife that shows up thanks to the wild-scape you create.
This isn’t a nightmare, is it? Nope, and it supports all kinds of pollinators, as well as songbirds who feed on the seeds produced by those pollinating wild bees.
Nature isn’t a streamline system with any one piece serving more important roles than the others; it’s all about biodiversity. In a system so complex, I am hard pressed to believe we could remove any single piece and not affect the overall system. We may not see the immediate consequences for removing that piece for quite some time, but in time things do suffer, and if we remove more and more pieces, it becomes more of an irreconcilable manmade disaster.
I assure you, the consequences we will one day face for wiping out wild bee populations will be harsh, and I believe impossible to bounce back from. Apis cannot replace the pollinating services of thousands of diverse species of bees. Wild bees, however, could give honeybees a break from the long road trips on the backs of semi trucks, if we give them habitat to safely reside in. Let’s not forget that this isn’t just about crop production to feed humans, but about maintaining the beautifully balanced life nature provides without our “help”.
Will you do your part and make your land (big or small) safe for wild bees too? Oh, and in the process, you’ll also make it safer for sweet little Apis.
If you’d like to do some learning on your own about our wild bees, “The Bees in Your Backyard,” is a wonderful resource.
As always, thank you for joining the movement!