At social gatherings, when folks learn that Joseph Wilson is an expert on bees, they sometimes parade their knowledge of these insects: Bees live in large colonies with their mother queen, they make great stores of honey and if they sting, the stinger stays attached to your skin.
This is all true for the honeybee, but not for the 4,000 other species of bee found in the United States and Canada. “They don’t live in big hives, they don’t make honey and they can sting you multiple times,” Wilson said. “All those things they thought applied to bees are an anomaly.”
Honeybees have been husbanded for centuries, valued for their honey, their wax, their ability as supreme pollinators to make an apple orchard all the more fruitful. Their struggle with colony collapse disorder in recent years has captured the popular imagination. As someone who has kept bees, I can say that honeybees are an enchanting, if somewhat needy, form of livestock. The one thing they are not: “a poster child for other bees,” said Wilson, a biology professor at Utah State University.
The colony losses of the honeybee - linked to pesticide use, parasitic mites and other factors - have broadened a sense of our reliance on pollinators in general.
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Most of us know the large, black and pesky carpenter bee that gnaws into our decks in May or the sweet bumblebee that seems oblivious to its own stem-bending heft.
But what of the small iridescent green bead that is the euglossa bee, or the golden Svastra, stocky, woolly and like a miniature teddy bear with wings.
Yes, bees can sting, but they are generally much more placid than such waspish creatures as yellowjackets and bald-faced hornets, and certainly more agreeable outdoor companions than biting flies. And yet many people can’t distinguish a wasp from a fly or bee, never mind among bee species. For people who enjoy and observe the natural world - gardeners, for example - that confusion can seem as odd as calling a cat a dog.
So as folks become more interested in bees, it seemed logical to Wilson and fellow bee biologist Olivia Messinger Carril that people should be more informed as well. The result is their new guide, “The Bees in Your Backyard,” which offers an introduction to a world of bees that is mostly hidden to people who aren’t entomologists.
Honeybees can be managed in hives because in nature they congregate in tree cavities, but 70 percent of wild bees nest in the ground, often as solitary insects or as a congregation of loners: Think of an apartment building full of singles. Maybe as many as a third of bees evolved to feed off a given flower or flower family. The others are generalists and will devour whatever nectar and pollen is around.
The largest bee in North America is a species of carpenter bee, whose hulking frame smothers most of a quarter. The smallest is a gnat-size species named Perdita minima - on the same quarter, it would just about cover George Washington’s nose.
Here’s another honeybee-vs.-wild-bee quirk: For all the colony losses experienced by beekeepers, they can (with work, skill and expense) repopulate lost honeybee hives. The species isn’t imperiled. Wild bee losses may be more troubling: According to the 2014 book “Bumble Bees of North America,” as many as half of the 46 species covered may be in decline.
For many other bee species, their status is murky even to scientists, Carril and Wilson told me, because there is so little historical record of their past presence and abundance. “Nevada, for example,” Wilson said. “It’s probably a very diverse area, but it’s had very little bee research done on it.”
So if we are making gardening resolutions in the new year, it might be good to promise ourselves to do more for these lesser-known bees and to pay more attention to them.
We can attract them the same way we enrich our gardens for other pollinators and ourselves: with an extravagant floriferous garden that blooms abundantly from March to November. We should make sure that we steer clear of pesticides that can harm bees, and buy only plants that haven’t been treated with systemic neonicotinoids. Carril pointed out that the showiest double-flowered blooms offer reduced levels of nectar and pollen.
One of the easiest and most bee-friendly plants is the annual sunflower. Perennial versions are also long-blooming and are high-performing garden plants for summer and fall. Look for varieties of Helianthus angustifolius and H. giganteus. Asters are also great for bees, along with goldenrods. There are many varieties to consider during the current garden-planning period some people call winter.
You can build nesting boxes for bumblebees (not always successful) or simple wooden blocks drilled with holes for cavity-dwelling bees. Most usefully, keep a dry corner of your yard free of lawn, thick mulch or ground cloth. A dry-laid stone wall offers perfect nesting spaces.
Asked which native bee he likes the most, Wilson said he is captivated by the 600 or so tiny species in the Perdita genus. “They’re small, so that’s interesting, but most are specialists in terms of which plants they visit.”
Carril, who lives in Santa Fe but received her doctorate from Southern Illinois University, said she likes the few species of Exomalopsis that have moved north of the Mexican border. With their black-and-white-banded abdomens, they are handsome and archetypal. Her other special bee is the Diadasia, about two dozen species of medium-to-large bees that evolved to feed from mallow blooms but then adapted to also feed from cactus flowers. Her Ph.D thesis had to do with why they added a second source. Her research involved removing the antenna of a euthanized bee and placing it between gas electrodes to identify the floral compounds that attracted the bee.
The experiment, she conceded, “sounds bad for a lover of bees. I promised myself that later I would make a large cactus garden.”