The Wonder of Wild Bees (Super-pollinators Part 1)

 Metallic green sweat bee ( Agapostemon texanus ) on coneflower ( Echinacea  spp.). Photo: Kathy Keatley Garvey.

Metallic green sweat bee (Agapostemon texanus) on coneflower (Echinacea spp.). Photo: Kathy Keatley Garvey.

We have over 4,000 species of native bees in North America that have co-evolved with our native plants over millions of years.  

Two summers ago I attended what I called "bee camp" at Eagle Hill Institute in Downeast Maine. The actual name of the week-long intensive seminar was "Native Bees as Pollinators", but it was more fun to proclaim to friends and family that I would be attending "bee camp", and so I did. If you haven't been to Eagle Hill, I highly recommend checking it out. The Institute is "best known for the advanced natural history science seminars and scientific illustration workshops". The campus is beautiful, the food outstanding, and the atmosphere is nothing short of magical. If you are a nature enthusiast, taking one of their seminars feels like sleepaway camp for grown-ups. It's a place where you can totally geek-out, eat good food, make new friends, and take a deep dive into a natural history subject. 

At the time I attended the seminar, I had already been developing pollinator enhancement plans for landowners, but I wanted to go deeper and understand the biology and ecology of native bees in more detail. I had no idea how hooked I would become on these continually captivating animals.

The seminar was taught by three knowledgeable and passionate scientists: Dr. Frank Drummond, Dr. Alison Dibble, and Dr. Sara Bushmann. There were lively lectures, field collection excursions on our beautiful coastline, and late nights looking through a microscope trying to key out pinned specimens (entomologists must collect and pin insects in order to adequately study them, and is a widely accepted practice).

It was in those late hours looking through the microscope that I fell in love with native bees. Scroll on dear, reader, and you will see why.

 A mason bee ( Osmia simillima ), collected in Acadia National Park, Maine. Bees in the genus  Osmia  are one our most economically significant native bees because of their pollinator services to orchards and other crops. See more of the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab's images  here.

A mason bee (Osmia simillima), collected in Acadia National Park, Maine. Bees in the genus Osmia are one our most economically significant native bees because of their pollinator services to orchards and other crops. See more of the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab's images here.

What is a "Native" or "Wild" Bee? 

As you probably know, pollinators are in significant decline due to a combination of factors including loss of habitat, disease, parasites, and environmental contaminants. However, honey bees have received most of the attention. Our domesticated honey bees pollinate many of our crops and provide valuable honey, but they are not native here. They were brought over from Europe about four hundred years ago and their numbers are vast (almost 3 million hives in the U.S. alone).

We have over 4,000 species of native bees in North America that have co-evolved with our native plants over millions of years, many of which are experiencing catastrophic declines. For example, in 2017 the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) was listed as federally endangered under the Endangered Species Act. This bee represented over 20% of Maine bumble bees 20-30 years ago, but it hasn't been seen in the State since 2009.

In Maine alone we have over 270 species of native, or wild bees, most of which are solitary bees, meaning they don't live in a social community like honey bees or bumble bees do. 

 

 Tri-colored/orange-belted bumble bee  (Bombus ternarius)  on blueberry blossoms. This species is one of 17 bumble bee species we have in Maine. Photo: Sheila Wakefield of  Sheila's Maine .

Tri-colored/orange-belted bumble bee (Bombus ternarius) on blueberry blossoms. This species is one of 17 bumble bee species we have in Maine. Photo: Sheila Wakefield of Sheila's Maine.

Wild Bees are Super-pollinators

Native bees are North America’s most important group of pollinators and play a vitally important role in maintaining the structure of many types of natural communities. As ‘keystone species’ bees play a critical role in upholding the integrity, productivity and sustainability of a forest understory, pasture, field, meadow, farm, orchard, or backyard garden. Bees pollinate flowering plants as they forage for food—without them many plants would become extinct.  In addition to being key to plant reproduction, pollinators also form the basis of an energy-rich food web.

Many native bees are veritable “super-pollinators”. Based on experimental evidence, the Maine blueberry bee (Osmia atriventris) is at least 7 times more efficient than the honey bee at pollinating lowbush blueberry. Solitary native bees, like the Osmia or the Andrena (below) gather dry, loose pollen from head to toe on their very hairy bodies.

 Pollen-covered mining bee (Andrena spp.) on coneflower. Photo: Alex Wild,  Insects Unlocked .

Pollen-covered mining bee (Andrena spp.) on coneflower. Photo: Alex Wild, Insects Unlocked.

Wild Bees are Gentle & Docile

It's amazing I work with bees, considering my dear departed mother was deeply fearful of them. Throughout my childhood I have memories of her shrieking and being altogether terror-stricken if a "bee" was in our vicinity. One crystal clear memory I have of her fleeing a "bee" is when she was sunbathing in a chaise lounge beside a crowded public pool. My young brother and I were shocked to hear our mother scream at the top of her lungs as she sprung up out of her lounger, and jumped into the pool like a woman gone mad, fully attired in her designer sunglasses and a flowy shift dress. Her visceral fear was understandable because she was allergic. Looking back, I realize now that in most cases she was reacting to wasps, yellow jackets, or hornets.

So many people mistakenly identify many things for "bees". I can't tell you how many backyard barbeques I've been at where I've tackled this misconception, usually without much success in persuading my listener that "those aren't bees circling the lemonade". 

Bees get a bad rap due to misidentification, horror stories of Africanized honey bees (the result of a science experiment gone wrong), and overall generalizations. 

Native bees are gentile and docile, rarely sting, and their venom is mild (i.e. it will not cause anaphylactic shock).

Maybe this knowledge, or simply the fascinating lives of our native bees, will encourage you to take up a hobby I like to call "Zen and the Art of Bee Observation". 

Get out in your garden, find a patch of flowers and patiently wait for the bees to reveal themselves. Chances are you'll observe a bee you never noticed before. Watch and learn. Observe the pollen-coated hairy body of a mining or mason bee,  or the loaded pollen basket of a bumble bee. Show the children in your life the magic work of these brilliantly busy and complex creatures. Sit in gratitude for their work in the world, as we have pollinators to thank for peaches and apples, chocolate and strawberries, spices, medicines, and so much more.

To learn more about native bees and their habitats, stay tuned in June for "Super-pollinators - Part 2. I'll offer some top tips for how to create a pollinator paradise in your own backyard and beyond.

Pollinator Presentations

I will be presenting numerous talks, classes, and/or workshops on pollinators throughout the summer at various locations throughout Maine. Please see my events page for a full and frequently-updated listing, and please reach out if you or your group would like to host me!

Recommended Reading 

Our Native Bees by Paige Embry

“Embry’s book is witty, insightful, and full of valuable information for both the long-time lover of bees and those just-now curious. She captures the essence of a bee’s natural history and how we use (and sometimes abuse) bees.” — Olivia Messinger Carril, author of The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees

Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm

"If you are a person that lingers at flowers and gets close enough to marvel at all the bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, wasps, and flies that visit flowers for food, you will love this book. Heather Holm has compiled a gorgeous and super-informative guide to the pollinating insects that visit native prairie, woodland and wetland flowering plants. At last, a book that tells us the whole picture: the bloom time, range, habitat, and characteristics of flowers that attract pollinators, and the life-histories and fascinating traits of the many beneficial insects that pollinate the flowers. As I sit here on this cold winter day admiring the beautiful photos, I am filled with hope that our bees and pollinators will abound next summer and evermore."
— Marla Spivak, Professor, University of Minnesota

Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide by Heather Holm

"It would be hard to imagine a book more chock-full of the information we need to save our native bees. From helpful ID tips, to body size ranges, to seasonal distribution, to 99 species of the trees, shrubs, and perennials preferred by 27 genera of our most common bees, Heather Holm covers it all. This is the book pollination biologists and homeowners alike have been waiting for!"  —Douglas Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home

Attracting Native Pollinators by The Xerces Society

"Here is the most comprehensive treatment yet of native pollinators, detailing natural history, ecological importance, taxonomy, conservation, and restoration of native pollinator communities. Attracting Native Pollinators belongs on the bookshelf to everyone who values the future of the natural world."  — Douglas W. Tallamy, author, Bringing Nature Home

The Bees in Your Backyard by Joseph S. Wilson & Olivia Messinger Carril

"The decline of bees in recent years has led to a growing awareness of the importance of these insects. The Bees in Your Backyard provides a great introduction to the bees of North America and an invaluable aid to anyone learning to differentiate the various kinds. I know of no other book for general readers that describes all the genera to this extent." — Sheila Colla, coauthor of Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide


Did you know? Maine blueberry growers bring in 80,000 honeybees to pollinate blueberry crops each year. I work with blueberry growers to boost native bee populations that pollinate more efficiently.

Scientists estimate that one out of every three mouthfuls of the food and drink we consume is brought to us by pollinators. 

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 I partner with eco-minded landowners to create thriving wildlife habitats in their backyards, gardens, fields and farms, woods or campuses - at any scale.  I have 25 years of experience in my field, and a lifelong commitment to wildlife conservation.  Read  My Story .

I partner with eco-minded landowners to create thriving wildlife habitats in their backyards, gardens, fields and farms, woods or campuses - at any scale.

I have 25 years of experience in my field, and a lifelong commitment to wildlife conservation.

Read My Story.