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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.