Natives Do it Better

By Jason Martin, Stewardship Intern

When most of us think about bees we think of a honey bee or bumblebee. While both of these bees are remarkable and important in their own way we also need to give credit to the other 3,998 species of bees in North America.

The honey bee is not native to the United States. It was imported here from Europe around 400 years ago by the first colonists. So, the honey bee, even though it does a great job of pollinating, hasn’t evolved with the native North American crops like the other 3,999 native species have. This co-evolution has led to numerous specialized relationships between native bees and native plants. Believe it or not there are some native plants in America that honey bees cannot or very inefficiently pollinate. Tomato, eggplant, squash, and blueberries are just a few crops that need native bees to pollinate them.

Bumblebees (there are around 50 species in North America) use a method called buzz pollination where they vibrate their bodies to shake loose the pollen from the plant. Many plants, including tomato, blueberry, and the Solanaceae (eggplant) family, require buzz pollination, an ability that honey bees, not having co-evolved with native plants, lack.

Squash bees (Peponapis and Xenoglossa) are specialist pollinators of squash, melons, and cucurbits. These bees are active early in the morning when these flowers are in full bloom and enter, pollinate, and leave the flower much faster than the honey bee, which is active in the afternoon, when the flower is past its prime, and hovers before entering the flower, wasting time and thus visiting fewer flowers in a day.

The southeastern blueberry bee (Habropoda laboriosa) is much faster and more efficient at pollinating blueberry flowers than honey bees. The blue orchard bee (Osmia lignaria) is incredibly effective at pollinating fruit trees and has been used as a replacement for declining honey bee populations out west.

Bees pollinate about 75% of the fruits, vegetables and nuts that we eat every day. This not only affects our dinner plate but the agricultural economy as a whole in America. Honey bees are good at what they do but they can’t do it all. This is why conservation of our native bee species is of utmost importance.

The use of pollinator corridors is a great way to ensure that native bees have food and nesting habitat. They also act like bee highways that can direct bees to gardens and farm land. Now, what is a pollinator corridor? A pollinator corridor is basically a stretch of land, usually long and narrow like a highway, that is planted with native flowers and left undisturbed so that ground nesting bee and carpenter bee (that nest in dead wood) nest are not destroyed. These corridors are most effective if they lead to a garden or farm and can have an enormous positive impact in urban areas. One of the major reasons for pollinator decline in recent years is destruction of natural habitat. Pollinator corridors could help to ease this by providing food and shelter for native bees. These corridors could be put to further use by placing them near and around urban gardens and farms. This would “guide” the bees to these areas increasing pollinator numbers and increasing pollination of flowers and crops. Pollinator corridors can also add aesthetic value to local walkways and mowed areas along roads and in medians.

AWS’s ARMR site at Magruder Park along the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River is the start of one such pollinator corridor that will hopefully one day stretch along the floodways connecting to the Northeast Branch where Eco City Farms is located in Edmonston, MD. There is a survey currently being conducted at the ARMR site to assess the effectiveness of such a corridor in that area. Updates on the results of the survey will be posted as they arise.

Some people claim no farms no food but I say no bees no food!

The information provided in this post can be found in "Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees" by Beatriz Moisset and Stephen Buchmann, and can be downloaded for free online http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5306468.pdf

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Natives Do it Better | anacostiaws.org

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