Our Native Flying ‘Cheetos’: Bee Basics from the USDA Forest Service

October 8, 2015

001-000-04765-5“The world as we know it would not exist if there were no bees to pollinate the earth’s 250,000 flowering plants.”

A sobering sentence straight out of Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees, a joint publication from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service and the Pollinator Partnership. Authors Beatriz Moisset, Ph.D. and Stephen Buchmann, Ph.D. provide a concise primer on the fundamentals and cyclical heritage of our ‘varied and valuable’ native bees.

You may know that bees are sociable, resourceful, and resilient. But did you know that some species are downright parasitically opportunistic? The cuckoo bee is a member of the exclusively parasitic Apidae family. Once it scouts out a potential host site, it furtively waits out of view until the nest is vacated. Then, in a one-two-punch move, the cuckoo bee takes up residence and its young eventually shovel down up any pollen, nectar, and larva in sight.

Buchmann’s highly detailed illustrations of these pixie pollinators show how each species’ morphology is engineered for precise pollination. Bees use wing vibration to shake off a pollen-packed anther like a polaroid picture. This “buzz pollination” is a popular dance in bee social circles. The southeastern blueberry bee uses the same technology to gorge itself on blueberry pollen. Another pollination prodigy is the megachilid bee. Gathering so much puffy yellow pollen on its abdomen, it resembles, as the authors amusingly write, “flying ‘Cheetos’ snacks coming in for a landing.”


Can you identify a bee from a wasp? Excerpt from publication. Click image to enlarge.

The publication also details the homemaker behaviors of bees. The metallic-colored sweat bee is the consummate DIY designer. Nesting itself in the underside of freely-available detritus tree bark, it uses a saliva-pollen amalgam to lovingly tile the interior of its egg chambers. Some domesticating mother bees though the use of mass provisioning—storing up enough food in their brood cell nursery to sustain each larvae for the entirety of their development. New moms, take note!

Bee Basics is a great compliment to citizen science efforts to enrich and sustain a pollinator-friendly ecosystem. It concludes with a ecological call to action. The list of worrisome environmental realities are extensive: honey bee die-offs, shrinking native ranges, pesticide use, fungal infestations, and more. Protecting the ecosystem well-being of these minuscule pollinators requires a concerted conservation effort and a respect for the priceless services they provide. Bees have more than paid their dues to this planet. And for that, we are indebted.

How do I obtain this publication?

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About the author: Our guest blogger is Chelsea Milko, Public Relations Specialist in GPO’s Office of Public Affairs. 

The Buzz on Native Bees

June 29, 2011

I’m second to none in my admiration for the great rhythm and blues singer Lavern Baker. Her hit records, like “Jim Dandy,” “I Cried a Tear,” and “Saved” led to her 1991 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even the greats can go astray, though. In her 1960 recording of “Bumble Bee,” she sang “You hurt me like a bee/a bumble bee, an evil bumble bee.” Wrong! Bumblebees rarely sting and, as native bees, play a little-known but vital role in pollinating  flowers and crops. In fact, growers of greenhouse tomatoes deliberately establish bumblebee colonies in their facilities for pollination purposes.

Thanks to Bee Basics: An Introduction to our Native Bees, a 2011 Library Journal notable Government document co-produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Forest Service and the Pollinator Partnership, I now know that bumblebees and other native bees are responsible for 75 percent of the pollination of flowers and crops in the U.S. Given the many news stories in recent years regarding the mysterious “colony collapse disorder” affecting the non-native honey bee, the value of native bees described in this neat little booklet really “stung” me into a new awareness of these amazing and varied creatures. (By the way, native bees rarely sting, and many of their stings are mild.)

As I learned from Bee Basics, aside from bumblebees, most other species of native bees are solitary. They build nests in the ground, in dead trees and, in the case of a number of parasitic “cuckoo” bees, in the nests of other species. Thousands of species exist, many with very specialized tastes in pollen and nectar, those protein-laced plant products that convinced prehistoric wasps to give up their carnivorous wasp-ness in favor of a vegetarian diet.  The southern blueberry bee pollinates – wait for it – blueberry bushes, while squash bees pollinate cucurbits (pumpkins, squash, and zucchini to me). Competition from honey bees, environmental degradation, and pesticides all are hurting many of these interesting and literally life-giving insects so, to quote Arthur Miller, “attention must be paid” by all of us who benefit so mightily from them.

Bee Basics is written for the layperson, provides a huge amount of biological and ecological information in fewer than 50 pages, and is available here for you to read. You can also find it in a library.

As for Lavern Baker, I bear no hard feelings. I still love her version of “Bumble Bee!”



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