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Pollinator Safety Net: Native Bees

PHOTO: As honeybees continue to decline, native bees, including bumblebees, are being studied as a safety net for agriculture. Photo credit: Deborah C. Smith
PHOTO: As honeybees continue to decline, native bees, including bumblebees, are being studied as a safety net for agriculture. Photo credit: Deborah C. Smith
May 28, 2013

CASPER, Wyo. - Honeybees are still in decline across the United States, according to a report from the USDA that points to pesticides, parasites, poor diet, and lack of genetic diversity as some of the problems. The situation has piqued interest in native bees, which did all the pollination work until industrial mono-crop farming came along.

According to Scott Black at the Xerces Society, which promotes the conservation of native invertebrate species, it comes as a shock to many Americans when they learn that honeybees are not native. They came from Europe with the early settlers.

"You know, they grew up with the idea of honeybees and hives," Black observed. "And most people don't realize almost all of the other bees don't have hives. Most of them are solitary; it's a single mother providing for her young."

Black said it's estimated there are at least 4,000 native species of bees, and many of them are already at work in agriculture in Wyoming. He points to studies that have shown even when hives are trucked in for pollination, natives mingle with the honeybees for the job. The key is to provide habitat, which includes a variety of native plants, a seasonal series of flowering plants, and very little pesticide use.

Black said a realization is dawning that relying on one pollinator for crops isn't smart, economically or scientifically. He added that native bees have attributes especially for northern climates and high prairies.

"They're often more fit for the climate than honeybees are," he pointed out. "They'll pollinate when it's cooler. They'll pollinate when it's overcast and rainy."

Identifying native bees can be tricky. While a bumblebee is obvious, Black describes some natives as looking more like small flies. Flies themselves also are pollinators, along with moths and hummingbirds.

Bee-identification tips are available at the Xerces website.

That USDA study is at USDA.gov.

Deborah Courson Smith/Deb Courson Smith, Public News Service - WY