The United States is home to more than 4,000 species of native bees that display an amazing array of sizes and ecological roles, and yet non-native European honeybees, which arrived with the first influx of European colonists, tend to garner most of our attention and concern.
Author Paige Embry hopes to change that with her book, Our Native Bees: North America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them. The book balances scientific inquiry with fascinating anecdotes about the varying life histories of different species and the researchers who are trying to learn more about them.
Embry also examines the crucial role native bees play in ecosystems, whether native bee populations are declining, and whether these wild species can take over the pollination duties currently filled by managed honeybee colonies on farms and orchards.
Along the way she looks at how climate change, pesticides and habitat loss all present challenges for bees — and how they can be resilient, especially with our assistance.
“We may think the world is falling apart and an individual can do little to stop it,” Embry writes in the book. “That is not true for bees.”
We asked Embry about how native bees are faring, what scientists still don’t know about native bees and what we can do to help them.
You write in the beginning of your book that “honeybees get all the press,” which leaves most native bee species out of the discussion. Why should we be concerned about the welfare of our native bees in the United States?
The short answer is that about 90 percent of land plants use pollinators to help them procreate. Bees aren’t the only pollinators out there — there’s an estimated 200,000 different kinds of pollinating animals — but they are the queens of pollination because the females actively collect pollen.
For pollination to happen, the pollen (a plant’s sperm equivalent) has to get moved to the female parts of a flower. A plant can be self-pollinated or wind-pollinated or animal-pollinated or even some combination. Animal-pollinated plants usually provide a bribe, delicious nectar, to entice pollinators to visit. Ideally, a nectar-seeking critter gets smeared with pollen which they carry to the next flower — but sometimes they don’t. Female bees, however, feed pollen to their babes and so they have to come into contact with the pollen, making them superb pollinators.
No single species of pollinator, not even a bee, has what it takes to pollinate all types of flowers. Variety is key — bees with long tongues and short tongues, big bees and small bees, bees that can “buzz pollinate” flowers all have a role to play.
Can you tell us about a native bee species you find fascinating, and why?
Today I’d go with certain members of the genus Diadasia because I’m enchanted by the grand entry halls some of them build for their nests.
Diadasia are ground-nesting, solitary bees. Some build these crazy chimneys or turrets at the entrances to their holes. While researching the book, I ran across a paper that talked in detail about how one species went about building these structures and was amazed by the effort it took.
What really won me over was that the researchers found that sometimes in the night a bee would add morsels to the tops of the chimney. These morsels were bits of pollen embedded in poop. Why? Decoration? A thrifty recycler? No one knows, but that’s why I like Diadasia.
Your book points out a lot of gaps in our knowledge about native bees (including that much of the research only focuses on adult females); what areas could use more resources, or what haven’t we studied yet that we should?
I think we need to keep looking for ways to bring wild bees back onto farms and methods that will make it practical and desirable for farmers to turn their fields and surrounding areas into havens for bees. This would require both more research on what works and funding to effectively get that information out to the farmers.
Also, for many kinds of bees, it’s hard to know if bees are in trouble because we don’t have old, baseline data to compare to. We need to try and get that data now, so we can track potential future changes.
How has studying bees changed you? After working on this book, do you look at the world around you differently now?
Before I started researching bees they were just little things that pollinated and had stingers. I never thought much about bees. Now that I know something about them, some of their funny idiosyncrasies — like the way the males of some species hang out together and wait for females to come by — I see them.
Knowing about bees enriches my everyday life. I walk the dog and see a queen bumblebee in a crocus and think, phew, she’s found some food. I know she’s spent the winter in a hole, living off her body fat and that flower means a potential future for her and all her offspring. It takes that everyday walk from a routine chore to an event.
How do we find out what kind of bees live in our area — and what can we do to better support them?
The first step is to try the obvious Google query for your location. Regretfully, a lot of places have no list. One can learn about local bumblebees using Bumble Bees of the Western U.S. and Bumble Bees of the Eastern U.S.
Each bee description includes a map showing where they’ve been found. I’d also look at The Bees in Your Backyard by Joseph Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carrill. If you want bee facts. It’s a great book with wonderful photos and maps that show where the occurrence of different genera is high and low.
If you have a yard, helping bees is easy.
Lay off the pesticides. Plant flowers that bees like throughout the entire growing season. Make the plantings good-sized (3-4 feet). Provide nest sites. Seventy percent of bees nest in the ground. Tilling and covering every inch of soil with mulch and plants makes it hard for those bees to make a home. Pithy stems and old trees with lots of holes provide good sites for bees that nest above ground. Be forgiving of blemishes. Those leaves with nice semi-circular holes are likely contributing to the nests of leaf-cutting bees — rejoice and don’t bring out the spray gun.