During my life as a naturalist, I’ve been thrown into fits of excitement. Maybe I saw a new bird I’d been lusting after, or connected the dots between a plant’s niche in a landscape and the adaptations that define its appearance. Rarely though, does it involve bursting my bubble about a whole family of creatures. This past week, I had that experience with native bees.
Now, I’d never call myself an expert on pollinators, let alone bees. However, I’ve previously felt I had a broad enough grasp on entomology, and even the Order Hymenoptera which encompasses ants, wasps, and bees. I even know a thing or two about the natural histories of bumblebees and the European honey bee. Yet, when I sat down to listen to naturalist and native bee expert Dr. Don Rolfs, my mind was truly blown.
First off, raise your hand if you knew that there are at least 600 or so native species of bees in Washington? Next, tell me if you knew that around 95% of those species are solitary and don’t live in colonies, And then, tell me, how many are smaller than the length of your pinky finger nail? In fact, at least half are so tiny you’d hardly notice them.
Dr. Rolfs, who took the time to lecture my graduate school cohort, lives on the east side of the Cascades and was quick to have us understand this: We don’t know a lot about most native bees. We don’t know the exact number of species in the state. We don’t have scientific names for at least 10% of them. We know little of their life histories, population baselines, or habitat requirements. This is simultaneously exciting and scary.
You see, we spend a lot of time worrying about the European honey bee, Apis mellifera, and for good reason. They pollinates most of our food plants. Partially because we force them into unnatural densities where diseases flourish, and expect them to somehow contend with pesticides, they’re struggling. Honey bees mean money, which is why we hear about them. However, they aren’t the only bees out there.
Approximately 70% of the world’s plants and 25% of human crops are pollinated by wild bees. This alone should be enough to make you care. We know the honeybee is struggling, we know some bumblebees seem to be in decline. Yet, we don’t know enough about the other 95% of bees in Washington to say what they are doing, let alone how. If you eat food, let alone appreciate the bounty of flowers that we grow in our gardens, that bloom in wild spaces, we should care.
There’s one native we do know quite a bit about, and as expected, it’s because they are useful to us. The blue orchard mason bee, Osmia lignaria, are a wonderful little species that do well in urban environments like the Hill. They are highly efficient pollinators, purportedly one female can do the work of 100 honey bees. This is mainly because their bellies are covered in hairs for picking up pollen, which spreads it around more effectively, but also because they only use just enough pollen to rear their young. Unlike honey bees they don’t need to keep a queen, or a colony alive all winter with honey. Adult mason bees die each year, and then the youngsters, stored away in cocoons, stuffed into holes in wood and elsewhere, pop out when the weather warms enough the following spring. A female mason bee, (males do nothing but mate, as in all bees), just needs enough pollen to get larvae to pupate and emerge later on down the line.
People who keep orchards are big fans of these bees because they are easy and cheap to keep around. Though they aren’t perfect, like most natives they aren’t active all spring and summer, but they earn their keep in the spring when fruit trees like apples are blooming. If you like the idea of having native pollinators around, you can easily raise and house mason bees. Better still, they’re gentle, with next to no interest in stinging you because they aren’t protecting a hive from predators.
Bees aren’t the only important pollinators. We’ve got beetles (thought to be the OG pollinators of deep time), flies (male mosquitoes even pollinate), moths and butterflies (moths outnumber butterflies 10 to 1 fyi), and hummingbirds, amongst many others on the Hill. However, most bees are spectacularly adapted to using only nectar and pollen to survive. For that reason alone, I think they deserve our attention.
Happily, if you are interested in knowing more about native pollinators, it’s a good week for it. National Pollinator Week happens every year in June, and this year a bunch of amazing organizations, including Town Hall Seattle and The Common Acre, are putting on a series of events to celebrate pollinators in all their shapes and sizes. If I were you, I’d get myself down to the Seattle Pollinator Week Symposium at Rainier Arts Center on Tuesday June 19th. Five dollars gets you in the door, which is a small price to pay for a better connection to your local environment.
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