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February 12, 2013

Buzz On! Where Would We Be Without Native Bees?

Welcome these vital pollinators to your backyard

All Animals magazine, March/April 2013

  • Most North American species, like this leafcutter bee, are solitary and docile. Donna Brunet/Animals Animals

by Ruthanne Johnson

Summer’s long days would be strangely quiet without the subtle hum of bees—a reassuring reminder that these prolific pollinators are busy keeping most of the world’s 250,000–400,000 flowering plant species reproducing.

Unlike pollinators such as birds, bats, beetles, moths, and butterflies, bees deliberately gather nectar and protein-rich pollen on their bodies to carry back to the nest and feed their young. This symbiotic relationship with flowers has earned them a top spot as keystone species, responsible for sustaining ecosystems and billions of dollars in agricultural crops each year.

Honeybees, probably the most recognized of bees, actually hail from Europe. But there are some 4,000 bee species native to North America, including types of bumblebees and sweat, miner, carpenter, mason, squash, and leafcutter bees. In recent years, as colony collapse disorder began devastating honeybee populations, the spotlight has swung to native species to perform the vital task of crop pollination. Unaffected by the disease, these hardier types can forage in light rain and colder temperatures. They’re also out earlier and later in the season, and some species can navigate at dusk. “On a bee-per-bee basis, [native bees] are more effective,” says Mace Vaughan, pollinator program director for The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “… As scientists are studying wild bees in agriculture, they are astounded by how many more native bees are out there pollinating apples and berries and squash and melon and cucumbers and cherries and pears and almonds.”

But while native bees’ star is rising, their numbers are also in decline. “In farming landscapes and places where you have lost habitat and there is usage of insecticides and pesticides, there is a dramatic decrease in the diversity and abundance of native bees,” Vaughan says. “ … We’ve got five or six bumblebee species that … have disappeared over most of their former range.”

The good news is that a few simple changes in the way you manage your property can have a big impact on propping up native bee populations. Once your garden is buzzing, you may find these industrious insects more charismatic than you thought a bug could ever be.

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