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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Mason Bee Larva!

Check out this video to spy some live mason bee larva.

Below is a picture of the inside of my observation native bee house.  You are looking at two males nestled in the top rows resting, and three individual egg cells filled with pollen and nectar, and separated by mud in the bottom rows.  This is before the eggs hatched into larva, and the video I took tonight shows the larva, which are growing more chubby every day.  The next phase will be the larva spinning a cocoon around themselves to develop into pupa and then adults, which will emerge next March.  This is so cool watching the entire process!

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Making History

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In 2017 I find myself busier than ever toiling away at raising awareness for pollinators, many of which are insects that people generally dismiss as nuisances. Everyday I rise with the sun and begin pondering ways to reach people regarding the importance of pollinators, and many of my days I don’t have the privilege of witnessing the fruits of this labor, but I press on nevertheless, in hopes of reaching even the smallest of numbers to promote positive change.  I have been very fortunate to meet some amazing people on this journey who are also tirelessly toiling away for change.

2016 marked the beginning of my involvement with, and the establishment of the Colorado Pollinator Network, and what a wonderful journey this has been! We are looking forward to establishing the first annual Colorado Pollinator Month, which will take place in June of every year.  Our goal is to create state-wide awareness around pollinators to bring about positive change for pollinator species in our state.  My team on the Education and Outreach Workgroup has been working to invite as many entities as we can to help raise awareness during the month of June, and I cannot tell you how thankful I am for my team!

I am so very lucky to be working on Colorado Pollinator Month with:

Amanda Accamando (co-chairs the Education and Outreach Workgroup with me) of Hudson Gardens, Angela Jewett of Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield, Rebecca Coon of CU Museum of Natural History, Jane Crayton of CSU Extension of Pueblo, Deryn Davidson of CSU Extension of Boulder, Jessica Romer of Denver Urban Gardens,  of Audubon Rockies, Greta Mae of BBBSeeds.

All the hard work we have been putting in has been supported by Public Policy and Advocacy Workgroup of the Colorado Pollinator Network.  They brought a proclamation  to make Colorado Pollinator Month official, and thus a lasting mark on our state, to Governor John Hickenlooper, and he signed it!

When my family heard this news our house erupted with celebratory cheering!  My team of awesome go-getters were overjoyed.  This is a moment I will never forget, and I will always smile when June rolls around in Colorado, because we have already begun making history for pollinators!

Now, let’s do this!  Look for #pollinateCO to see the happenings for pollinators in June, and tag some pollinator photos of your own too.

12 x18 CO Pol Month Poster

I am buzzing with excitement, and determined to keep this state beautiful.

Jessica

Colorado Pollinator Garden

2017 harvest

Fall is a time we can appreciate what pollinators have helped to bring to our tables, but also a great time to plant for pollinators, and this is the number one way to help pollinators.

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The plants you choose should be pesticide free, and most importantly, neonicitinoid free.  “Neonics” are systemic pesticides, and end up in all parts of the plant, including pollen and nectar.  And once you plant them in the ground, roughly 90% of those nasty pesticides end up in the surrounding environment they are planted in, including the water.  If the nursery you shop at is unfamiliar with this type of pesticide, and cannot guarantee their absence in the plants they sell, don’t buy the plants.  Additionally, if there is a label stuck in the plant that reads “pest resistant,” that is likely containing neonics, or some type of pesticide.

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A garden that provides food from spring to summer to fall is most helpful, which means you will need a variety of flowering plants, and this also means your yard will be a rainbow of colors for you to enjoy!

I did some research to construct a garden consisting of food for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, as well as many other pollinators in Colorado.  Additionally, I have chosen plants that would bloom at varying times to provide food for pollinators from spring to fall.  Be sure to consult with your nursery about when to begin your fall planting for each type of plant, as this may vary.

Here’s the list:

Lavender

Yarrow

Turkish Veronica

Dalmation daisy

Catmint (bees of all sizes congregate on this plant)

Hissop/Agastache (of any variety, especially the red ones)

Coneflowers

Columbines

Hummingbird trumpet mint

Chocolate flower

Smooth blue aster

Cashmere sage

Russian sage

Bluebeard

Rabbitbrush

Mountain Mahogany

Sedum

Yucca 

And here are some more with pictures for your enjoyment!

Sunflowers are always wonderful for pollinators, and later for songbirds.

Salvia 

Lupine

Bee Balm

Blanket Flower

Penstemon

White Aster

Black-eyed Susans 

As always, I thank you for joining the movement to save our bees, and in doing so, saving all of our pollinators!

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