Not By Apis Alone

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.

IMG_6302I 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.

IMG_7285I 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.

IMG_6313I 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.

IMG_4374Bumblebees are buzz pollinating superheroes.  I love this photo I took!IMG_1555Tomato 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.

IMG_7876This 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.

IMG_7239This 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.

IMG_7018Squash 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.

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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”.

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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!

Where Do Bees Go?

Have you ever pondered where bees might be going during the winter months?  Bees are very much affected by the temperature changes, and when it’s cold, they don’t move so fast, and can freeze to death.  So, for most of the bees that live in seasonal places, populations die off, leaving the developing young tucked away in various types of sleeping caves, or bags.

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Honeybees overwinter, meaning they consciously live through the cold months.  They can do this because the large home they live in has very insulating honeycomb drawn in close proximity to each other.  This traps the heat the bees generate by clustering together and vibrating their flight muscles.  As a result of this clustered heat generation, the hive can be over 90 degrees inside! What a grand example of teamwork really paying off!  Honeybees are the only bees that live awake through the winter months; the rest go into hibernation.

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Let’s begin with the story of the bumblebee.  Bumblebee colonies begin with a queen waking from her diapause slumber early spring.  She searches for the perfect cavity to start her colony from scratch, and by the end of the warm months, all the workers die off, leaving behind one young mated queen.  You can spot a bumblebee queen by her very large size; she’s the biggest of them all.  Only a mated queen will be capable of entering that state of hibernation (diapause).  Once mated, she eats and eats and eats, until the temperatures become too cold for her to be out.  When the temperatures drop, she finds a place underground, or under a pile of leaves, and sleeps for months.  So take care when you are raking those leaves this fall.

The numerous solitary bees are not much different from the bumblebee, except that the bees left behind are not queens.  Solitary bees die at the end of the warm months, leaving behind tiny packages all around containing adult bees (both male and female) frozen in time until next year’s warm months return.  These packages could be underground (the majority), in soft plant stocks (raspberry plants are great for this), in wood tunnels, or many other possibilities these little resourceful beasts decide to use.  These bees are safe inside their various sleeping quarters through those frigid months when blizzards hit, and the random 70 degree days hit the middle of December.  The miracle is the internal clocks they all seem to have, to know when it is safe to emerge.

This time of year is a sad time for me, as my little muses hide away, and I am left with memories of warm months past…okay, it’s not THAT bad, but I do miss my little bees!  I hope you will discover some of these little beasts nesting in your yard this fall, and that you will leave them until spring to put on the wonderfully entertaining show that has won my heart over and over.  Remember, without bees, no seeds for many flowering plants, and no garden harvest in the fall.  We need these tiny creatures in very BIG ways. Thank you for joining the movement! If you enjoyed reading this post, please share and invite your friends and family to join the fun too!

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Honeybees, Move Over

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I decided it would be a good idea to write about this concentrated interest in saving the honeybees, because it’s missing the point in many ways.  Don’t get me wrong, I think saving the honeybee is 1/20,000 important, as it is 1 species out of 20,000 on our planet, but shouldn’t take the spotlight.  So, let me tell you about some of the thousands of bees that live on our planet.  We can’t possibly cover 20,000 species in one post and keep your attention, but let’s cover some basics to get your wheels turning.

map for native bee journal

Estimated bee counts worldwide.  Honeybees are 1 out of the 20,000.

This will blow your mind, but not all bees live in social hierarchies….wait, no queen? Yep, no queen.  In the state of Colorado, 70% of our native species live and nest alone, and are labeled as solitary bees.  Keeping in line with this title, solitary bees nest in individual tunnels, whether it be underground, in wood, in pithy plant material, or manmade holes.

IMG_3374These are mason bees nesting inside our observation bee house.  The yellow is pollen, and the brown is mud that separates each bee from the others.  As they grow the pollen goes away and eventually a cocoon is wrapped around the bee until next season.

Inside a tunnel are individually packaged developing bees inside cocoons, who will remain in that tunnel through the winter months in a hibernating state until the temperatures are right for them to emerge from their cocoons.

IMG_5513Mason bees emerging from cocoons.

Some species of solitary bees space timing of emergence years apart, meaning one generation might emerge the following season, and others could emerge 2,7 or even 10 years later.

IMG_0216This species of bee, Anthophorini, spaces out the timing of emergence.

As you can imagine, this is a survival tactic as every year is very different in the weather patterns and floral growth.

Solitary bees do not make honey, but many are over ten times better at pollinating than honeybees.  This is because many have thick abdominal hairs, or simply have more hair than a honeybee, and they are fast.

img_4447Look at this leafcutter bee’s belly! That’s hair covered in pollen!

I have observed the speed of native bees vs honeybees, and the native bee species are incredibly efficient and fast as they fly from flower to flower collecting nectar and pollen. Trust me, when I am out there trying to snap photos of these little guys, honeybees are so much easier to shoot, because they meander and take their time from flower to flower.  Many of the shots I take of native bees are blurry!  I chalk up the slower pace of honeybees to having thousands of sisters to divide the tasks, so that sense of urgency isn’t as pressing on the honeybees.  When you are the only bee future generations are relying on, you bee stressed!

IMG_4374Look how hairy bumblebees are!

So, what are bees good for, if there’s no sweet treat for us?  Pollinating services performed by the many species of bees, and other pollinating species, is most important to us for many reasons, but also essential to ecosystems relying on plant resources, whether it be shelter or food.  For example, tomatoes, and plants related to tomatoes need a special kind of pollination to reproduce, buzz pollination.  Many bees can perform this service, but not honeybees.  The best at buzz pollination is done by the bumblebee, but other solitary bees can do a fantastic job of it too.

Here’s a little info on the bumblebee.  Bumblebees are social, but do not make honey, and only live in the warm months of the year.  One mated queen will hibernate underground through the winter, and start her colony from scratch the following spring.  When she starts her colony she looks for vacated rodent burrows or vacated birds’ nests; very resourceful.

IMG_4068The egg cells look like cereal, and the glossy filled pots contain nectar.

Let’s get back to why I am writing.  The thing is, most of the bees on our planet are not living nestled high inside hollowed out trees or in manmade boxes.  Most of our bees are living under our feet, a place where we seldom think to look.  When you know this, you should concern yourself with what you are putting into that ground beneath your feet.  The ground is a giant nursery of babies, and very important pollinating babies at that.  We cannot relocate those babies, as we can honeybee colonies.   So, doesn’t it make sense to stop the madness of pesticide use in our very small plots of residential land?

img_4749Digger bee returning to stuff an egg cell full of pollen and nectar.  She’s heading into an 18″ deep tunnel, underground.

When you hear about “saving the honeybees” please raise the concern about the 19,000 other species of bees that support our planet, and furthermore the 179,000 other pollinators who support our planet.  This fight isn’t solely for the honeybee; it’s for a world of interconnected pieces of life!

logo-included-posterPollinator assisted pollination is essential to many plants for reproduction.  Plants (many of which produce flowers to invite pollinators in) clean our air, sequester CO2, keep fresh water on land, and provide food, fibers, and shelter.  There are an estimated 180,000 pollinating species on our planet, making honeybees 1/180,000 important players needing recognition.  Beyond the list of pollinators are all the living species relying on their pollinating services for food and other resources.  Don’t get me wrong, I do love honeybees, but come on people, what about all the others?

Join the movement and remind people that honeybees do not represent all bees, and we should care about how we treat the ground.

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Bee Kind

In July I received a call from a resident who discovered she had some unwanted residents living under her deck.  I asked her the color of her residents, and was able to confirm they were honeybees.  They had likely swarmed last year and found the opening under her deck quite perfect for their new home.  The only problem was, it was inside the structure, and could become quite a nightmare to remove as time went on.  I decided to pay her a visit, and sure enough, there the bee-line was, going in and out of an opening in the stucco under her deck.  They were very friendly and paid us no attention as we looked closer, but I knew this wasn’t a job I could do alone.

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I felt in over my head, as I am skilled at collecting swarms, but not comfortable with cutting into any structures to remove comb and all.  So, we decided to look for someone who might be willing and able to tackle this, potentially huge, project.  Months went by, schedules got very busy, and we lost track of things.  However, I was lucky enough to come across a local business, Colorado Bee Rescue, at the Parker Honeybee Festival in August, and called their number.

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Guy answered, and I told him about the bees, and he agreed to call the resident and assess the situation.  He agreed to help her along with my help.  I was very excited, as you all can imagine, being the bee hugger that I am.

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When I showed up, Guy had already begun, and was using a bee vacuum he designed specifically for this purpose.  Guy has kept bees for 12 years, and has owned two contracting companies before this endeavor, so he knows how to cut into structures with minimal damage, which is then easily repaired.  What a complete package of skills he has for what he does now!

The space the bees had filled was roughly two feet deep by two feet high by 3 feet long rectangles under the deck.

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The comb was beautifully symmetrical; amazing that honeybees can draw such perfect comb every time!

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I helped where I could, collecting bees with the vacuum.  Before we could finish, some neighborhood robber bees started showing up, sucking down piles of honey left on the concrete, and many even piled up onto the cut comb.  It became challenging to determine which bees belonged where! So, we stopped vacuuming, as Guy said that usually collecting all the colony doesn’t typically take that long.

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When Guy opened up the screened vacuum box, thousands of little faces peered out at us, and a few stragglers started to cling to the outside of it, exchanging pheromones through the screen, and even fanning to help any other stragglers to find their way home.

The top picture shows a daughter bee faithfully fanning her wings to emit the queen’s pheromones to guide sisters to her. 

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Here a group of sisters are exchanging pheromones via proboscis contact.  It also looked like they were caring for a younger sister, maybe feeding her too.IMG_7514

The volume of bees in a hive is so amazing, and to hear them all together in such a small space makes you realize just how many there are! I placed my gloved hand on the screen, and the vibration was exhilarating.  This took me back to swarm season, and that amazing feeling of thousands of bees sitting on my hand as I guide them into the rescue box.  What amazing little creatures honeybees are!

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I love what I do, and knowing that this resident’s connection with me helped to save these bees from extermination, is exactly why I do what I do.

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Here’s a face to go with the name, Guy Shingleton.  Thank you, Guy, for the sweet treat, and for all you do!

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Check out this sweet treat I scored for helping out today! So delicious straight out of the comb!

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Some things to keep in mind, if you find yourself in a situation like this one are as follows:

  1. If it is fall when you find the colony, please consider letting them be until spring.  It is very hard for a colony to survive the winter when they are moved in the fall.  They have spent all the warm months making honey stores for winter, and moving them destroys much of that work.  This colony will need to be fed sugar syrup through the winter, which doesn’t contain the same nutrients as honey, so not ideal, but necessary.  
  2. Exterminating them is pointless, aside from unethical at this day in age, as we need them for so many reason.  Killing all the bees leaves all the honeycomb in your walls, or whatever structure they have decided to occupy.  This serves as bate, leading another colony into that space, and you are faced with this fate all over again.  The best way to cure this situation is to have a professional remove the comb and the bees, and then fill the space with insulation so there isn’t an open cavity begging to be occupied again.
  3. Leave it to the professionals to get this done properly.  Attempting to remove a honeybee colony without proper equipment and protective gear is very risky, even if you aren’t allergic to stings.  
  4. If you see a swarm in the spring, call the swarm hotline, or call me, and we can find them a proper home so they don’t move where they aren’t wanted.

Thank you for joining the movement to save our bees!
Jessica

Delicate Footed Flower Bearer

I spend hours in my garden everyday during the warm months of the year, observing the life that bounces from flower to flower below, and from limb to limb above.  I listen to the audible expressions of the visitors who frequent the fruits of my many years of outdoor labor.  Many days I see repeat visitors, and every so often I catch a glimpse of a new arrival, and very rarely, I am prepared with my camera in hand.  This is something I must improve upon, as magic doesn’t present itself on any particularly predictable schedule.  My luck was on point this day that I found this lovely creature perched on Catmint in the early hours of the morning.  Of course, it was my phone camera, but a camera nevertheless!  She is a bee of the Apidae family, one of diverse size and color, including the bumblebees and honeybees.

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Her genus is Anthophorini, and that’s where I will stop with all the scientific terminology.  I have never seen this bee in my yard before.  She tried to sneak in and sneak out, but I was an astute observer that day.  Of course, the picture gave me reason to learn more about her, and I know you are dying to know some interesting facts about her too!  Much of what I am about to share has come from the book, “The Bees in Your Backyard.”

Anthophorini has two species, Anthophora and Habropoda.  Anthophora means “flower bearer,” while Habropoda means “graceful/delicate foot.”   To me, she is about the cutest bee I have ever seen! So, the meaning of the names suit her very well.  From my vantage point, I couldn’t easily or accurately determine which one she was, but her characteristics are definitely Anthophorini.

These bees have more hair than the average bee, and often have hairy legs, sometimes looking like leg warmers.  The colors can range from slate gray to rusty-red to black!  Wow, what a range.  Some nest in twigs, but the majority nest in tunnels underground with many neighbors, otherwise termed an aggregation.  Their size can range from 1/2″ to 1″.

Interestingly, this genus of bees are very good buzz pollinators, and all this time I was thinking bumblebees (cousins of Anthophorini) were the rock stars of buzz pollination!  This means they are great for tomato and blueberry pollination, among other plants with fused anthers.

One very interesting fact, I found worth everyone knowing, is that not all of these bees emerge in the same year!  That means that there are bees of this genus resting in diapause for 2, 7, and even 10 years!  That’s astounding to me!  How do they know when it is their year?  They are cooped up in a tiny room deep underground, where the sun doesn’t shine, and the surface are hardly felt, and they somehow know it’s time to emerge.  That’s a miracle!

I have found the natural world to be endlessly entertaining, and one of the best teachers. Learning from the natural world will never become dull.

And with that, I will leave you with a quote I recently stumbled upon.

“Above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you, because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely of places.  Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it,” Roald Dahl.

Now, I’m off to find more magic to share with you! Won’t you go and find some magic too?

Jess

Mr. and Mrs. Digger Dining Together

Digger bees are devoted sunflower seed setters, as they love the sunflower family blooms.  I was very lucky to capture both male and female digger bees dining side by side.  Learn a bit more about digger bees here.IMG_6934

Lady digger is on the left and mister digger is on the right.  The male has very long antennae for mating purposes.  Check out the video posted on YouTube by Karla Thompson.

Please do share what you learn, and thank you for joining the movement to save our bees!