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Native Bees Are All the Buzz

January 31, 2017

By Courtnie Carter, beekeeper/native bee enthusiast

Inland NW Food Network

Concern for the recent decline of bees has permeated the public world. For many individuals, the phrase “save the bees” conjures images of adorable, fuzzy honey bees bustling around garden flowers. Honey bees are the main source of commercial pollination for most agricultural crops, including almonds, cherries, blueberries, asparagus, and apples. However, the honey bee is not native to the United States, and therefore is less adapted to local conditions, even over the hundreds of years within North America. The true heroes of the agriculture industry are the solitary bee species, or “native” bees. Over three thousand species of native bees live in North America, including the leaf cutter bee, the mason bee, and the beloved bumblebee family.

While native bees are not always the first choice for pollination of agricultural crops, they have a knack for the work. Native bees are efficient pollinators because of their tendency to remain with one particular crop for their source of sustenance. Some crops depend on these bees for their particular method of pollination. For example, blueberries produce significantly better when “buzz pollinated,” a specialty of bumblebees. Native bees have also adapted to the specific conditions of a local environment, which prevents susceptibility to many diseases and pests. In addition, the males of the native bee species are also effective pollinators, unlike the matriarchal society of the honey bee. This increases the species’ efficiency in pollination.

The situation for all bees has become dire, as pesticides, disease, and environment destruction run unchecked. Unfortunately, native bee species are not championed as highly as the honey bee, and are overlooked despite their potential. But there is still plenty that can be done to change the game for native pollinators, especially on the agricultural front.

Unlike honey bees, native bees do not require any direct handling or care. Native bees have basic needs; undisturbed nesting sites to raise young, and flowers or plants to feed them when their preferred crop is no longer producing. Many native bees nest in plant stems, holes in tree bark, or underground.

The most effective way of helping nesting native bees is simply leaving an area untouched, such as allowing plants to overgrow into a protective bee site, or leaving old trees to continue housing nesting bees. For additional help, native bees often take to manmade “bee hotels,” or nesting boxes, which mimic conditions of natural nesting sites in a protected setting. There are many different ways to make these nesting boxes, and bee hotels can be purchased in a variety of stores and online websites. Native bees must carry their nest materials to their sites, so providing access to soil, leaf material, and mud will ease the burden of nest building.

Feeding native bees is also a basic task that can benefit your crops later on. Many native bees may prefer a particular crop, but still require access to food when that crop is no longer producing pollen. Planting pollen sources between crop producing periods will help boost native bee populations, and benefit the pollination of the crop in the future. Easy pollen sources include goldenrod, bee balm, and lavender.

Native bees are a diverse, widely overlooked source of pollination that has been relatively untapped. While honey bees remain the face of the bee protection movement to the public, prioritizing native species is a highly effective way of ensuring diverse, efficient pollination will continue to benefit the agricultural world.

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