What native bees? Where are they?
Honey bees are not native to the Americas
Not many people realize that honey bees—those bees that are always in the news—are not native to the Americas. Honey bees were first brought to the New World by colonists in the early 1600s. Since the colonists brought the food plants that they were accustomed to eating, they also brought the honey bees that regularly pollinated those plants back home.
Honey bees thrived in the Americas and they soon escaped into the wild and spread faster than the folks who brought them. But pollinating bees were nothing new in this lush landscape. The United States alone is home to more than 4000 species of wild bees—from extremely tiny to big and fat.
Because honey bees are so familiar to us, we often think that all bees live in large groups. But the vast majority of our native bees live completely alone, some live in small groups, and a few in larger colonies. But for all their similarities they are very different in when, where, and how the live and what flowers they pollinate.
Pollination quite by accident
Although pollination is extremely important to us and to everything that eats flowering plants, bees don’t pollinate on purpose. Bees don’t wake up in the morning and say, “We have to go pollinate the plants, so seeds will be formed, and another generation of plants can grow!.” No, for bees, pollination is accidental.
What bees really have on their minds is collecting pollen and nectar for their young. Nectar is the sweet sap of plants. It is made of carbohydrates and provides the bees with energy. Pollen contains part of a plant’s genetic material in a tiny packet that must be transferred from one flower to another in order for the plant to make seeds. The genetic material is in the very center of the pollen grain. The rest of the grain contains protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals—all things the bees need for good health.
As the bees go about the business of collecting pollen and nectar, some grain of pollen stick to their hairy bodies, and some of those rub off on other flowers. So as they go from flower to flower, pollen grains move from one flower to the next. As more bees visit, more pollen grains get moved around. Eventually some of those grains stick to the pistil of the plant, where the seed-producing process gets started. And the bee, you see, know nothing about it.
Bees are vegetarian wasps?
People are often afraid of bees because they confuse them with wasps. And really, it’s no wonder. Bees and wasps are closely related. But a long time ago—millions of years back—some wasps stopped eating meat and became vegetarians. These vegetarian wasps developed special structures in and on their bodies for collecting pollen and nectar. Before long they were eating a plentiful and well-balanced diet without the hassle of hunting and killing . . . a piece of cake instead of a piece of flesh.
Those vegetarian wasps evolved into our present day bees. And while a real wasp will try to steal the ham from your sandwich or the beef from your barbecue, a bee has no interest in such things. Fragrant flowers, sweet nectar, and a pile of sticky pollen puts a bee in hog heaven.
“But,” you say, “bees sting just like wasps. Aren’t they trying to kill me?” While wasps sting for defense or to throttle their prey, bees sting when they are trying to protect their nests and their young. Even honey bees that live in enormous colonies don’t generally sting unless they feel you are a threat to their home or their nursery, and bumble bees seldom sting unless you dig up their nests. Native solitary bees sting even less. About the only time a native bee will sting is if you accidentally step on one or squeeze it with your hand.
Most bees are solitary
Most of the 4000 bee species in the United States are of the solitary type. Just like it sounds, solitary bees live alone. It works like this: a lone female bee hatched from an egg and goes through complete metamorphosis. That intimidating phrase just means the bees goes through four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult.
The egg is tiny and usually white, it hatches into a larva that looks a little like a small worm. The worm eats the pollen and nectar that was left for it, and then spins a cocoon. Inside the cocoon the larva becomes a pupa. During this stage the bee starts looking less like a worm and more like an insect. It develops eyes and wings, legs and antennae. Finally, when all the parts are ready, it breaks free from its cocoon as a fully-formed adult bee.
Both male and female bees are born this way. After the hatch, the males and females mate, then the females start building a new nest. In the nest the build little food piles made of pollen mixed with nectar. On top of the pile they lay their eggs so when the eggs hatch into larvae, they will have a supply of food . . . MREs for bees (that’s meals ready-to-eat).
Native bees nest everywhere
All these different kinds of solitary bees can be divided into two types, depending on where they build their nests—above ground or below ground. Those that live in the ground may use leftover mouse or vole holes, or they may burrow directly into the mud. Those that live above ground may choose hollow reeds, woodpecker holes, splits in siding, or small cavities in masonry. The choices are as varied as the bees. Most bees don’t drill holes, but use ones they find. Carpenter bees are an exception, drilling holes wherever they please.
Bee species are famously hard to identify. If you can narrow a bee down to the genus you are doing very well indeed. To enjoy bees, to encourage them to nest, and to watch their antics, it is not necessary to know the exact species. To many of us, having a pretty good idea of who they are is good enough. If you want to go further, if you enjoy pouring over a dichotomous key, by all means go for it. But don’t think it’s necessary—bees are fascinating with or without a species name attached to them.