Surprise, Native Bees Are Better Pollinators Than Honey Bees!

Honeybees Suck At Pollinating! There, I said it!
It's time for the honey bee to step aside and let native bees have their moment in the spotlight. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not here to bash honey bees. They are incredible buzzing machines, and I appreciate the work they put in and the honey they make. But what about native bees? Where are they in the conversation about producing the world's food supply? Well, as it turns out, they do a lot more than previously thought. So let's meet some of your new best friends: native bees!

It may be surprising to know that 75% of North American plant species require an insect for pollination. Bees are usually responsible, but many other insects can do the job as well, including butterflies and beetles!

Before comparing native bees to honey bees, we have to first know how honey bees operate. I think most of us know that honey bees live in colonies. Colonies can have several thousand bees, with some numbers ranging from 10,000 up to 60,000 and beyond. The worker bees are tasked with collecting pollen and nectar to feed the colony. Those bees can fly up to 5 miles from the hive to gather resources. And the honey bee is one of the most effective at doing so. Which is the problem. Bet you didn't see that coming!

You'd never think efficiency would be a problem, right. Well, in this case, these worker bees get fixated on a pollen/nectar source. These bees collect as much as they can carry and head directly back to the hive. Once they've offloaded their bounty, they head back to the source. Over and over, they fly back and forth to collect and deposit their harvest. And over and over, they fly right past other plants without dropping off any payload. It's this efficiency, directly to the plant and directly back to the hive without stopping for a fountain soda or to chat with some friends, that makes honey bees suck at pollinating.

These bees rarely stop off at other plants, depositing their previously collected pollen onto new plants. It's their job to keep the colony fed, and dropping off supplies, accidentally or not, is not what a good worker bee does. Enter native bees. Yup, honey bees are not native to North America. They were brought here in the 17th century from Europe. However, the United States has about 4,000 native bees.

Many native bees are solitary creatures. What they do with their time is for themselves. They're not on a quest from the Queen to provide food for the colony. They just need food for themselves. Native bees will collect pollen/nectar from several different plant sources before returning home. Each time they touch down and take off, pollen is transferred from these bees to the plant. If you've ever watched a slow-motion video of a Bumble Bee (native to the US) landing on a flower, it looks more like a bellyflop. This crash-landing throws debris (pollen) loose. These bees are constantly losing and collecting pollen and nectar, transferring it to every plant they stop at.

Somewhere between 20-45% of native bees are plant species specialists. Well, pollen specialists would be more accurate. They will only use pollen from a single species of plant! If that plant somehow is removed or disappears, so does that bee. Conversely, if the bees are removed, the plant can not reproduce. As mentioned above, the Bumble Bee is a sort of specialist. It's one of the only species of bees that uses buzz pollination, a technique where the bee violently shakes the flower to release the pollen. That's a bit over-simplistic, but it's more or less what happens. And many of your prized table foods only exist because of buzz pollination.

With almost every crop, native bees are the primary pollinator. Or at least they significantly supplement honey bee activity. Studies have shown crops that don't need a pollinator, like peppers, soybeans, and cotton, have higher yields when visited by bees.

While honey bees play an essential role in pollinating, they are also notable native bee competitors. This is why they shouldn't be introduced in areas where you're cultivating native plants. That said, the main reason for native bee numbers declining is the loss of plant diversity on the landscape. Despite the high number of foods pollinated by native bees, those bees are also responsible for healthy forests, wildlife, and watershed.

Fun fact, native bees are often very tiny, like 'smaller than a grain of rice' tiny. In fact, the USDA says around 10% have not yet been named or even described!

Older Post Newer Post