Sometimes they bumble, sometimes they buzz, but they are all relatively small, fast-flying, and pollen-covered creatures responsible for pollinating three-quarters of all flowering plants in North America. They are our native bees. These native bees, of which there are approximately 4,000 different species, are not to be confused with the non-native honeybee, Apis mellifera, introduced in the 1600s from Europe. Honeybees have been the hallmark of modern industrial agriculture, but are now the subject of population health concerns due to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
Unlike Apis mellifera, native bees do not necessarily nest socially or produce honey. They are, however, critical pollinators of our native trees, shrubs, flowers, and crops, such as pumpkins, blueberries, and cranberries, making them a crucial component of North America’s ecosystems. Research on more than 50 species of native bumblebees reveals they also are experiencing a decrease in population and the reasons are not completely clear. Since most of our native bees are solitary, their decline is not linked to CCD but is likely due to habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, competition with other bees, and deforestation. These native bees support the botanical diversity of North America and without them flowering plant populations would plummet, quickly. No pollination, no fruit, nor seeds, means no regeneration of many native plants.
Luckily for bird lovers and gardeners, native bees have one important need in common with our feathered friends--access to healthy native habitat. So, when you are planning your gardens this year, thinking about what would be best for birds, you’ll also be thinking about our native bees.
You can support bees by:
• Eliminating areas of your yard covered in non-native lawn or plants.
• Adding more native flowering trees, shrubs or flowers.
• Finding less toxic ways to manage your pest problems by avoiding chemical pesticides or using very few chemicals.
• Building a bee-house, or leaving bare ground for bees to nest in.
In return, the bees will continue to provide crucial pollination services to plants we all enjoy. It is estimated that native bees provide about $3 billion annually in pollination services to the U.S. economy. Native bees are truly the unsung heroes of our habitats. Take care of the bees and they will take care of the plants. The plants that life on this terrestrial planet depend on for survival.
Raising honeybees, which are non-native but provide excellent pollination and delicious honey, can be a rewarding experience for a home gardener. Your best bet for ensuring pollination in your gardens is to plant native plants. However, if you love honey, beeswax, bee pollen, and the joy of watching social bees, raising your own might be a great option. January, February, and March are the ideal times to plan, purchase, and setup an area for bees.
Many flowers start blooming in late March. It is best to have a hive ready to go at the beginning of the flowering season to help maximize the bees' chances of establishing successfully. For more information on raising bees and purchasing equipment, visit the websites below. Many of these companies can ship nationally, but purchasing bees adapted to your region is recommended.
Some suppliers sell out of equipment or bee colonies, so consider ordering soon.
1. Northeast: Better Bee
3. Midwest: Heartland Honey Bee Keeping Supply
4. Northwest: Ruhl Bee Supply
5. Southwest: Bee Keeping Supply
(This list is not exclusive; search the Internet for more options, locally and nationally.)
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