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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