(From the archives, 11/17/09.)
In recent years, there has been a lot of concern in agricultural circles about the phenomenon called "colony collapse disorder" which has threatened honeybees, not just in this country but around the world. Much has been written about the problem and many scientists have been busy researching it, but still no definitive answer has been found to the question of what causes it. The most likely answer seems to be that a combination of forces has created a kind of perfect storm to menace the bees and overwhelm their immune systems creating havoc in the hives.
The question that is sometimes asked is what would happen if all the honeybees in North America became extinct? Well, the answer seems to be that it would be a huge problem for many agricultural enterprises that have come to depend on them, such as the almond growers in California, and it would change our lives in ways that it is hard to even imagine. But as for Mother Nature, she would most likely simply shrug her shoulders and go on with her planting.
After all, the honeybee is not native to North America. It was imported just like cattle or sheep. Honeybees are livestock that are wrangled by humans and raised for their benefit. But before the honeybee came to North America, pollination was occurring quite efficiently and if all the honeybees disappeared, although some crops might disappear with them, pollination in the larger world of Nature would not suffer.
The reason that the process of pollination is not endangered along with honeybees is that there are more than 3500 species of native bees on the continent! These are solitary bees that do not swarm and they are very efficient pollinators that often do the lion's share of pollinating crops.
These native bees, as a group, are sometimes called pollen bees and they have some advantages over honeybees when it comes to pollination. For one thing, they are active early in the spring, before honeybee colonies reach large size, and they tend to stay in a crop rather than fly between crops, thus providing more efficient pollination.
Also, native pollen bees fly rapidly and can pollinate more plants, and unlike honeybees, the males, too, are pollinators. Native bees are usually gentle, with only a mild sting, or, in some cases, no sting.
So, what are some of these paragons of pollination? Well, some of the most familiar are the bumblebees, carpenter bees, mason bees, and digger bees. These bees are some of the most noticeable species that most of us can easily find in our backyards. Many of the other 3500 or so species are more inconspicuous and fly under our radar. But each of them has an important niche to fill in the environment and they all deserve our protection and assistance.
If you want to be kind to bees, there are some concrete steps you can take.
1. Research the kinds of bees that are native to your area. The first step in protecting and helping them is to know who they are. You won't even have to leave your computer to do it. There is a wealth of information online about native bees.
2. Learn to understand the biology and life cycles of native bees. Most of them are solitary, although bumblebees may form small colonies. They are independent creatures, not bound to a queen or any overlord. Many of them hibernate for most of the year - some for up to eleven months. When they emerge, they feed and pollinate energetically.
3. Provide nesting habitats. When you find out what kind of bees you have, learn what they need to nest and reproduce and try to provide the right kind of environment for them.
4. Stop using harmful pesticides! This may be the most important step you can take. Most pesticides will not distinguish between "good" insects and "bad" insects. They will kill all insects - bees, butterflies, and ladybugs included.
5. Furnish suitable crops and wild forage. Most gardeners will have no problem with this one. Most of the things that we love to grow are useful to bees, but they especially love things like sunflowers, daisies, milkweed, coneflower, asters, and basil that is allowed to flower.
Remember: To be kind to bees is to also be kind to your garden which needs them, and ultimately, to be kind to yourself.