The invisible pollinators: Native bees need our help

When we think of pollinators, we tend to think of the iconic honeybee. This highly recognizable bee not only provides us with honey for our plates but are also shipped all over the country by their beekeepers to help pollinate important crops like almonds and apples.

Most of the food we eat benefits in some way from pollinators, but it is important to remember that the honeybee is just one of 20,000 known species of bee. In the US alone, 4,000 of these species make their home—but many people are hard pressed to name even one besides the European honeybee.

Other species of pollinator are important too however, in part because of how they go about pollinating. A honeybee has baskets on their legs that they carry pollen stick on. They are very efficient about this and can strip a whole flower without leaving much behind. They then travel to another flower and do the same thing but may not pollinate that much thanks to their efficiency.

Other types of bee, such as hole-nesting Mason bees, have a more relaxed approach to collecting pollen. They bellyflop onto the flowers and collect it dry on their abdomens. This very messy style of collection is inefficient—but great for flowers.

In fact, according to Dave Hunter, founder of Crown Bees, 400 nesting mason bees are equivalent to about 30,000 honeybees when it comes down to pollination in an orchard.

Why honeybees can be a problem

Mason bees and other pollinators often find themselves struggling when there are a lot of honey bees in the area. Since honeybees strip most of the pollen to for their queen’s laid eggs (larva eat the pollen to grow into bees), there’s often less food available for their native cousins.

Since they are also shipped to the places they are needed, they’re also more likely to bring disease with them.

Because honeybees are so ubiquitous, it is very hard for scientists to study just how much they help or harm the ecosystems they are in. Recently however, an opportunity arrived for scientists to do just that.

In the Canary Islands there are archipelagos that do not have contact with honeybees—year-round anyway. In Teide National Park, thousands of honeybees are placed in the park to collect honey, and then later removed.

This provided a robust data set for scientists to look at, and the ability to compare what the island was like before and after bee introduction. What they found was that honeybees disrupted the plant-pollinator network, and reduced the ability for plants to produce seeds.

How we can help support native bees

Fortunately, there are things you can do to help native bees survive and even thrive—yes even if honeybees exist in the same area. The best thing to do to help native species are actually in many ways what’s best for honeybees too.

You can help by avoiding spraying pesticides known to harm bees, such as neonicotinoids. Many seeds are treated with these, so if you purchase seed for a garden, check to make sure they are untreated.

You can also help by providing lots of habitat for bees. If you’ve always dreamed of setting up a big flower garden, planting bee friendly flowers is a great way to help every species of bee benefit. Taking care to plant a garden that has flowers at every time of year can also help make food abundant for more than just a few weeks.

If you have a lawn, switching from grass to a low growing clover can also help provide abundant food sources for all bee species.

Consider hosting a native species

You can also help native species in a big way by bringing in a bee house for them. Species such as Mason bees are gentle, and can help make the most out of your flower or vegetable garden through pollination. All it takes is the right bee home to make them comfortable.

We spoke with Crown Bees in Washington state to talk a little bit more about native bees and what sort of homes are best for them. Dave Hunter is an experienced beekeeper who has dedicated many years to learning about native species and keeping them healthy.

He recommends getting special homes designed for mason bees that have nesting holes that can be opened up, like natural reeds, paper tubes, or wood trays. Avoid bamboo homes and holes drilled into boards, as they can actually do more harm than good due to pest build up. When one opens up these nesting holes in the fall, pests are easily sorted out from the mason bee cocoons.

Learning how to care for these amazing pollinators is quite easy!

Want to learn more?

[[We are not affiliated with Crown Bees in any way, and are strictly recommending this newsletter because it’s very cool and informative]]

Dave Hunter also offers a monthly newsletter focused on native bees and giving timely tips on how to care for them. We highly recommend signing up for this “BeeMail so you can learn more about these fascinating animals and how to help them.

You can sign up for bee mail by visiting the Crown Bees website.

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