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Over 4,000 Reasons to Love (and Protect) North America’s Native Bees

By Clay Bolt, Associate Fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers

It has been famously said that it is impossible to avoid thinking of a pink elephant once you’ve been told, “Don’t think of a pink elephant!”  Naturally, I’m thinking of one right now; a large, cotton candy colored pachyderm with robust thighs and tiny legs that terminate into an ice-cream cone point. What can I say; I watch a lot of cartoons with my children these days. In recent months, I’ve come to realize that there is another scenario that bears more than just a passing resemblance. When you hear the word ‘bee’ what do you think of? Chances are, if you’re not thinking of a breakfast cereal mascot then you’re probably thinking of Apis Mellifera, a species commonly known as the honey bee. You know, the one with the big black eyes, a slightly stripy, fuzzy bottom and a generally pleasant demeanor, right? Along with ladybugs and butterflies, you might say that it is one of society’s accepted insects. The curious thing is that, despite its place in our hearts and minds, the celebrated honey bee isn’t even native to North America: European settlers first brought colonies to the continent during the early 1600s.

Metallic Green Bee (Agapostemon sp.) visits a Black-eyed Susan. This is one the beautiful native North American bees that has been given the unfortunate common name of 'Sweat Bee.'
Metallic Green Bee (Augochloropsis metallica) visits a Black-eyed Susan. This is one the beautiful native North American bees that has been given the unfortunate common name of ‘Sweat Bee.’

This iconic pollinator (along with other closely related species within its genus) has been a faithful companion of humanity for a very, very long time. It is an association that has spanned the ages back to the earliest days of mankind. Sadly, our six-legged traveling companion has been appearing frequently in the news lately not for the good things it brings, but rather due to the unfortunate spread of a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Once stricken by this malady, an overwintering hive of bees will inexplicably abandon their queen, resulting in her, and her youngs’, demise. Over the past eight years this epidemic has laid waste to somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million beehives.

A Leaf-Cutter bee (Megachile sp.) prepares to land on an Aster next to a Green Metallic Bee (Agapostemon splendens), South Carolina.
(On left) A Sweat Bee (Halictus poeyi) prepares to land on an Aster next to a Metallic Green Bee (Agapostemon splendens).

Theories abound as to who or what might be the culprit behind the sudden die-off of bees. Some point to a fungus / virus cocktail as the source of the mass infection, others to a parasitic mite and of course, pesticides offer another potential candidate. To further confuse the matter, some argue that CCD is a cyclical occurrence that has been around for centuries and as a result, nothing to be concerned about. No matter what the impetus turns out to be, one thing is for certain: if occurrences of CCD continue to spread, the loss of bees will most certainly have a devastating affect on a wide-swath of species (including our own) and the balance of the natural world as a whole. To say that this is troubling news is an understatement. One recent study on the topic predicts that if bees were to go extinct, over 90% of the world’s plants would be lost as well. To deepen the conundrum, honey bees are estimated to contribute over $16 billion dollars to the U.S. economy via pollination services each year (Losey and Vaughan 2006). This figure doesn’t even include all of the other benefits that the insects’ activities set in motion, ultimately making life better for you and I.

The European honey bee (Apis Mellifera) is a much-loved insect t
The European honey bee (Apis Mellifera) is a much-loved insect that is incredibly valuable to the US economy.

As I read more on Colony Collapse Disorder and the general importance of honey bees to the environment one thing has become apparent: though incredibly productive, our old pal the European honey bee isn’t doing all of the work that it is being credited for. It is undeniable that A. mellifera is responsible for a great deal of agricultural pollination, but there also happens to be over 4,000 known species of native North American bees whose services are worth an estimated $3 billion dollars per year to the US economy. Beyond this impressive dollar amount, as it turns out, many agricultural plants are primarily pollinated by native bees that are uniquely equipped with the tools and techniques required to do the job. And here’s the rub: while we’re (justifiably) spending heaps of time focusing on the loss of honey bees here in North America, our native bees are in decline as well, but in general, the media has overlooked this important fact.

claybolt_ilcp_native_bees4a
Metallic Green Bees (Augochloropsis metallica) are commonly found throughout North America. Most members of this genus are solitary ground nesters.

Species in the genus Peponapis (commonly known as squash bees) visit Squash blooms as they open during the first light of each day.  In the southeast, blueberry bees (Habropoda laboriosa) cling to blueberry flowers while rapidly vibrating their flight muscles to dislodge pollen (also known as buzz pollination) that honey bees have difficulty reaching. Many of the 50 described species of North American bumble bees also use this sonic approach to pollen collection, positioning them as the superior pollinators of plants such as cucumbers and tomatoes. Like blueberries, these plants have specialized flowers, requiring vibration in order for pollen to be released. Bumble bees are also one of the few groups of insects that can self-regulate their internal body temperature, making it possible for them to visit flowers in colder temperatures while honey bees remain confined to their hives.

Augochlora pura is a very common, gorgeous bee whose name litera
Augochlora pura is a very common, gorgeous bee whose name literally means ‘pure magnificent green bee.’ In some cases, the color can shift to a more coppery hue as is evident in this individual photographed in the mountains of South Carolina.

It is time for Americans to recognize the important contributions and charming nature of our native bees. Not only do they make it possible for crops to grow, but many also happen to be visually appealing as well, which is a nice plus for anyone who enjoys wildlife watching. Although honey bees are undeniably cute, adorably fuzzy little creatures, as a whole, our native species win the beauty contest hands down. They are flashy, sleek, and unabashedly colorful inhabitants of field and forest. Sparkling like emerald encrusted fighter jets, they zip through the garden, quickly touching down and then blasting away from flower to flower.  For a nature fanatic such as myself, I find it curious that most people know so little about these fascinating insects. Some of the most stunning, commonly encountered bees are found in the family Halictidae, whose many species bear the unflattering label of ‘sweat bee.’ While it’s true that some of these so-called sweat bees are attracted to perspiration, most are much more interested in collecting pollen and nectar than sucking up sweat. Can you blame them?

Two species of Carpenter bees with an amazing contrast in size.
Two species of Carpenter bees with an amazing contrast in size. On left: The Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica) dwarfs the Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina sp.). Though solitary, Small Carpenter Bees can often be found nesting in the hollow stems of dead plants in loose groups.

Over the past few years I’ve tried to become more conscious of where my food comes from. It is the least that I can do considering that I don’t actually produce any of the food that I consume each day. When I go to the supermarket and walk past the eggs, I try to picture the hens that produced them. When I see pork (which I no longer eat) I wonder if the pigs had a decent life or if they had spent years in the dark, trapped in an incredibly small cage before they were slaughtered. More recently, when I come across fruits and vegetables, I have begun to visualize all of the bees and other pollinators that have made it possible for me to enjoy delicious blueberries, tomatoes and squash. It is important for all of us to make these connections lest we forget our dependence on the natural world.

A dew covered  Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica). Bees
A dew covered Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica). Bees will often rest on flowers overnight.

I’ve decided that it’s high-time to meet these native bees in person –perhaps not all 4,000, though that would be amazing– but rather the ones that play the biggest part in the development of some of our most familiar foods. I want to be present on a farm at dawn when the first squash bees arrive. I’d like to witness metallic Blue Orchard Bees in California as they visit the almond trees, and tune into the buzz of a blueberry bee as her vibrating wings dislodge pollen from creamy-white blueberry flowers. For the next few years I will be making several trips across the continent to document many of these species in action and their role in food production.

Bumblebees are very important pollinators for a variety of crops
Bumblebees are very important pollinators for a variety of crops including tomatoes and blueberries. They impliment a techninque called sonication or buzz pollination to free the pollen from these plants and others that require sound for pollen release. Shown: An abberant color form of the Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens).

As a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) I believe that it’s incredibly important to share their stories with the public. Now is the time for us to recognize that it isn’t just the honey bees that are at stake of being lost. In a sense, it is our native bees that are at even more of a risk because they are simply not on our radar. As it is with many environmental issues, it’s easier for us to choose our poster children and put blinders on to the surrounding chaos. Understandably, there is a lot to take in these days. Yet, as in most cases, the story is always so much bigger than it seems upon first glance. By learning more about North America’s native bee species, perhaps we’ll be able to make better decisions regarding the land-management and agricultural practices that affect their well-being, and ultimately our own. To the untrained eye, these little creatures that flit about in our gardens may seem insignificant, but that is an unfortunate underestimation of just how important they are to our world. We need them more than we know and if we aren’t careful, we may soon find out why.

Cuckoo Bees (Nomada sp) often sleep or rest by clamping their mandibles onto a twig or leaf. Photographed in the field studio, Pickens, South Carolina for Meet Your Neighbours.
Cuckoo Bees (Nomada sp) often sleep or rest by clamping their mandibles onto a twig or leaf. Photographed in the field studio, Pickens, South Carolina for Meet Your Neighbours.
claybolt_ilcp_native_bees10
Although the vast majority of native North American bees are solitary, some species, such as this Lasioglossum Bee, live in communal nests with one central opening that leads to several nesting chambers that are used by a single female. Individuals will take turns playing guard. This small nest opening is barely larger than the head of a pin.

 

Comments

  1. Clay Bolt
    April 17, 10:02 am

    Hi Hannah, Thank you for the recommendation! I have not read this book yet, but I’ll put it on my list! Yes, so many species are important for native pollinators and they are important for many species in turn….

    Thank you for your kind words Bruce! That means a lot coming from a photographer of your caliber.

    My best,
    Clay

  2. Bruce Farnsworth
    USA
    April 10, 12:59 am

    Very comprehensive piece. Stunning detail. Nice holistic treatment, from the historical to the economic to the behavioral and aesthetic. The NewsWatch section of the National Geographic seems a wonderful place for this piece!

  3. Hannah
    Muscatine, IA
    March 28, 10:28 pm

    Great article! Truly eye opening. For those of you discussing planting native plants and to “stop the mowing madness!”, I suggest you read Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home, (if you haven’t already). In a perfect world, we could transform the immense, grass lawns in the suburbs to huge corridors of habitat for our pollinators and wildlife!

    It’s a fantastic read–especially the interesting facts about how many of our insects are dependent upon only to three species. Many of our native trees species support and feed caterpillars! So both native wildflowers, shrubs and TREES are important for our pollinators!

  4. Clay Bolt
    February 21, 3:26 pm

    Hi Pat,

    I couldn’t agree more! My wife and I have seen a tremendous increase in insects, birds and many other species since we moved into our home a few years ago and stopped the mowing madness! Keep spreading the word!

    Clay

  5. pat
    pa
    February 17, 11:40 am

    All our pollinators, now the monarch butterfly, are facing dire situations. As a Master Gardener (penn state), we all need to plant more native wildflowers and grow food not lawns!

  6. Clay Bolt
    January 17, 1:24 pm

    CT,

    Glad that you’re enjoying the bees! Keep spreading the word about their beauty and importance.

    My best,
    Clay

  7. Cornie
    CT and GA
    January 16, 11:31 am

    Thank you for the Bee article! We used to keep honey bees years ago…now I enjoy watching all kinds of bees that visit the flowers and plants in the yard and out in the Marsh here in Georgia. I sure do agree with you that bees are so very valuable to life on this planet…thank you, again.

  8. Clay Bolt
    January 15, 3:03 pm

    Keep up the great work Mandy! Good luck with your efforts. -Clay

  9. Mercy
    New York
    January 14, 9:25 pm

    Thank you so much for this information! People really don’t even know what is going on about this honey bee disappearance! I am trying in my home town and everywhere to tell people we need to save the bees. I even submitted something to ABC NEWS about this since none of this has even made it on World News or TV at all. I am trying to fundraise for the bees and plant flowers around my city. I am glad other people know about this and believe it is our job to save them!

  10. Clay Bolt
    USA
    January 13, 9:47 am

    Hi Jason,

    I really appreciate what you’re doing at UF and for the link! I’ll eventually be launching a site for this project and will link to your initiatives. I also would love to stay in touch once things get rolling a bit more.

    Hi Denise,

    Thanks so much for your comment and support. I checked out your fb page and there is a lot of good info there. It would be nice to stay in touch as I begin to roll this out more fully in the spring.

    My best,
    Clay

  11. Denise Shreeve
    Virginia USA
    January 12, 8:42 am

    I’m thrilled to see native bees finally getting the publicity they deserve! I speak to many groups about native bees, and invariably the only bees they know are honey bee, bumble bee and yellow jacket (a wasp). Articles like yours will go a long way towards educating the public, so thank you for this!

  12. Jason Graham
    Florida
    January 11, 9:27 pm

    Fantastic article and stunning pictures Clay! Thanks for all you are doing to promote our pollinators. As part of my PhD, I have developed a citizen science project called http://www.ufnativebuzz.com which encourages people to create solitary bee nesting habitats in their backyards and report on the diversity that they find. Please feel free to stop by and check us out and also visit our community of native bee enthusiasts at http://www.facebook.com/NBNSProject where I have shared your article.
    Thanks again!

  13. Clay Bolt
    January 8, 5:10 pm

    Everyone: Thanks so much for your comments. They are appreciated!

    Celeste: I appreciate the references! Looking forward to checking them out!

    Thanks so much Niall!

    Merci Denis, for your support, as always!

    Beatriz, I really enjoyed your article link! Thanks so much for the good information.

    Richard, I hope that your prediction isn’t true! One way or another, I shall find out the situation and report on it over the next few years, good or bad.

    Thank you Todd!

    Dea, you’re right about the importance of flies for pollination, perhaps for my next project! :) And, if you have a look at the second image, I say that a Lasioglossum prepares to land. B of these bees are considered to be ‘sweat bees,’ just different species.

  14. Beatriz Moisset
    SE Pennsylvania
    January 8, 4:47 pm

    I clicked “submit comment” to soon last time. I meant to add that the photography is stunning. The Augochlora and Augochlorella are superb.
    Dea: sweat bees include species of Halictidae such as Agapostemon, Augochlora, Augochlorella and Lasioglossum. They are correctly labeled.
    As for the flies, yes, they are important pollinators that deserve more credit. But they are distant seconds to bees. For that matter, wasps, moths, and beetles plus a few non-insect ones also do a share of pollination. However, bees (all 20,000 species) do most of it.

  15. Dea
    January 8, 2:57 pm

    Flies do almost as much (if not AS much) pollination as bees do…

    And I think the info on the second image is mixed up you say “Sweat Bee” is Agapostemon sp in the first pic, but in the second you attribute it to Lasioglossum sp, as well as left out an “OF” in the text…

  16. Todd A
    January 8, 9:07 am

    Fascinating read!

  17. Richard Elzby
    Canada
    January 8, 9:05 am

    It’s not likely that native bees are visiting anything in any farming areas as fungicides and neonics have literally decimated these poor creatures. If you want some incite into this comment watch videos like Queen of the Sun, Vanishing of the Bees and More Than Just Honey. I could say happy viewing but you won’t be happy once you’ve watched what agricultural chemicals are doing to our wildlife and the environment.

  18. Beatriz Moisset
    SE Pennsylvania
    January 8, 8:14 am

    Good article. Fabulous photography. Interestingly, I just published one in “Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens” on the same topic. http://nativeplantwildlifegarden.com/will-we-all-die-if-honey-bees-disappear/
    Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants require buzz pollination. Cucumbers don’t.

  19. Denis Palanque
    France
    January 8, 3:59 am

    Wonderful Article Clay!
    A very well constructed text and stunning images! Great job!
    I know very little this group of insects that is at home in France as well as abroad. But It seems to me that you get beautiful and very photogenic species.

  20. Niall Benvie
    Scotland
    January 8, 3:23 am

    Hello Clay

    Excellent piece that should be a wake up call to everyone who takes pollinators for granted.

    Niall

  21. Celeste Ets-Hokin
    Oakland, CA
    January 7, 9:49 pm

    Thanks for the insightful and timely article, not to mention your exquisite photographs, Clay. Native bee conservation has been my focus for the past five years, so it’s very gratifying to see an increasing number of journalists covering this viital topic. Are you familiar with the “Garden Variety Native Bees of North America” perpetual calendar? It provides an introduction to native bees and features twelve genera that are likely to visit gardens across North America, especially if gardeners provide floral resources and nest sites. The stunning 9 X 12 photographs are by Rollin Coville, and yours truly provided the accompanying descriptions of each genus and recommended plants to attract and support them. The calendars are still available for purchase through The Great Sunflower Project website. Most of the proceeds benefit this non-profit pollinator conservation organization (www.greatsunflower.org). Thanks again for your article, and I look forward to the sequel. Bee well!

  22. Clay Bolt
    January 7, 4:49 pm

    Thanks for the correction MaLisa!
    -Clay

  23. MaLisa Spring
    Ohio
    January 7, 3:10 pm

    Halictidae is a family, not genus.

    Otherwise it is a pretty good article.