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Native Honey Bees – Invite Them and They Work for Free

PHOTO: As honeybees continue to decline, native bees, including bumble bees, are being studied as a safety net for agriculture. Photo credit: Deborah C. Smith
PHOTO: As honeybees continue to decline, native bees, including bumble bees, are being studied as a safety net for agriculture. Photo credit: Deborah C. Smith
May 31, 2013

YANKTON, S.D. – Honeybees are still in decline across the United States, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture 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.

Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, which promotes the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat, says it comes as a shock to many people when they learn honeybees are not native. They came from Europe with the settlers.

"You know, they grew up with the idea of honeybees and hives,” he says. “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 says it's estimated there are at least 4,000 species of native bees, and there's potential to put them to work for agriculture.

He points to studies that show even when hives are trucked in for pollination, natives mingle with the honeybees to do 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.

Identifying native bees can be tricky. Black suggests looking closely at flowers to get to know the species in the area.

"Right now, I'm looking at my raspberries,” he says, “and we do have some honeybees on here, but we've got at least two species of bumblebees, as well as two or three species of these little, small, dark bees that many people might think were flies."

While some bees might look like flies, Black says flies themselves are actually pollinators, too, as are moths, butterflies and hummingbirds.

He says tapping into diversity will help agricultural production becomes more resilient if honeybees continue to disappear, or become too expensive to use.

"We should not rely on one pollinator to pollinate all of our crops,” he adds. “It's just not very smart, from an economic point of view or from a scientific point of view."

Bee identification tips are available at the Xerces website at xerces.org.





Jerry Oster, Public News Service - SD