Everybody knows bees are in trouble. Few people know that the threat extends far beyond the familiar honeybee. Nearly 20,000 species of bees exist in the world, 4,000 in North America and 400 in Idaho alone. Though the honeybee population vastly outnumbers other bees, honeybees represent a tiny fraction of the world’s bee biodiversity.
Of those 20,000 species, just seven are honeybees, and only the western honeybee is found in the U.S. The rest are a wide range of fascinating creatures often named for their industries of choice: leaf-cutter bees, mason bees, carpenter bees and mining bees are all found in Idaho and other states.
Native bees are mysterious. Resources are devoted to studying honeybees because of their status in agriculture, an economic incentive that native bees lack. Native bees also tend to be solitary and live in remote areas, making data collection much more difficult.
“I think that it’s important to remember that honeybees are a managed livestock in the U.S.,” says Mark Nagel, resident beekeeper at the Idaho Botanical Garden. “Saying that you are saving the bees by helping the honeybee is like saying you are saving birds by helping chickens.”
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What is the primary difficulty these native bees face? Habitat destruction.
“That’s why places like botanical gardens are so important,” says Anna Lindquist, garden lead and native plant specialist at the Idaho Botanical Garden. Along with home gardens, “they provide a diversity of plants that bees aren’t finding in other places.”
Most pollinating insects are considered generalists, meaning that they don’t feed on a single type of plant, says Sierra Laverty, assistant horticulture director of the Idaho Botanical Garden. These include some bees as well as butterflies, flies and beetles. Collectively, 90 percent of the world’s wild plants rely on these pollinators for reproduction.
Many native bees, however, are specific in their pollination efforts. For example, one important plant in the arid landscape of the West is the globe mallow. This plant serves as a food source for rodents, rabbits and deer. The globe mallow bee is specialized to feed off globe mallow nectar, and in return the plant relies on this bee for pollination. If either the bee or the plant disappears, it’s not clear what would happen to the other, says Lindquist: “We just don’t know.”
Honeybees have a flight range of miles, but many native bees will spend their entire lives in a single location. This, combined with their small numbers, makes native bees particularly susceptible to habitat loss.
Unlike the honeybee, which was brought to North America by European settlers, bumblebees are native. They are social insects and form underground colonies with a few hundred individuals — small compared with the tens of thousands found in a honeybee hive.
Bumblebees are important pollinators. They can function at cooler temperatures than other bees and are often the first pollinators to emerge in the spring. They tend to fly lower and serve a different population of plants. Most importantly, they have a neat way pollinating: vibration.
Tomatoes are a prolific crop and a favorite of bumblebees. The flowers of the tomato plant don’t offer nectar, and the pollen is tightly wrapped up, inaccessible to honeybees. The bumblebee, however, can hold onto the flower and vibrate at just the right frequency to shake out the pollen, greatly increasing the yield of tomato, according to the Xerces Society. You can easily hear this buzzing as bumblebees forage about.
Like all bees, bumblebees are being hit by habitat loss and pesticides. According to the journal Science, climate change is affecting bumblebees, not only by shifting the plants they rely on northward out of their normal range, but also by changing the times at which the plants bloom, moving the food source out of sync with the bees’ spring emergence.
To make matters worse, the bees are under attack from diseases such as deformed wing virus, spread to bumblebee populations through contact with honeybees. As the name suggests, this virus shrinks or crumples wings, limiting bee flight.
In 2017, the rusty patched bumblebee, native to the Eastern U.S., was placed on the endangered species list, the first bumblebee so protected. It joins seven species of yellow-faced bees, all native to Hawaii, which were listed as endangered in 2016.
STEMMING THE TIDE
According to Lindquist and Laverty, an important step toward helping bumblebees and other native bees is learning more about them. Lindquist and others at the Idaho Botanical Garden are participating in the Pacific Northwest Bumblebee Atlas Project, where they document and photograph bumblebee species. This collected data can help scientists better understand where the bees are and how their habitat is changing.
This program is open to the public as well, making it a great way for people to get involved in science, says Laverty. Such programs are “really important to increase people’s understanding of scientific data collection and … for people to care about their natural environment.”
Beyond citizen science, what can people do?
Easily the most immediate thing is to establish more habitat for native bees. “If you’re intentional about how you use space, you can become a haven for different pollinators,” says Laverty. Plants like yarrow, prairie clover and buckwheat are plants that do well in Idaho and are attractive to bees and other pollinators.
Many native bees nest in the ground and require an area of loose, bare dirt to burrow in. Leaving some dirt unwatered and undisturbed is a great thing you can do for bees, says Laverty.
Another easy step is refrain from spraying pesticides on plants in bloom. Laverty offers a simple trick to minimize harm to the pollinators: If you must spray, mow the lawn first. This will disperse the bees and other helpful insects. Spraying early, before the bees appear, is also helpful.
‘IF YOU PLANT IT, THEY WILL COME’
Judy Snow, a resident of Garden City and member of the Chinden Gardeners Club, has taken the mission of helping native bees to heart. She became passionate about helping them as she searched for something to do in her retirement.
“I’ve been a gardener my whole life,” says Snow, “and I never knew there were any different kinds of bees other than honeybees and bumblebees.” After watching a TED talk by Marla Spivak called “Why Bees Are Disappearing,” she started thinking of ways to help.
Snow persuaded Garden City to become a Bee City under the Bee City USA initiative of the Xerces Society. With donations from the city, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and local retailers, and a grant from the Idaho Woman’s Charitable Foundation, she helped establish the Garden City Pollinator Habitat at River Point Park next to City Hall on the Greenbelt. It features a variety of native plants and water features, as well as a sitting area and table donated by the local Rotary Club. It’s also chock-full of bees.
The purpose of the garden is education. The grant paid for informative signs throughout the garden, and all plants are labeled so that people can be inspired to plant a bee-friendly yard. The garden was dedicated June 23. As Snow said at the dedication: “If you plant it, they will come.”
In addition to plants, both the Pollinator Habitat and the Idaho Botanical Garden have “bee boxes,” raised wooden boxes containing habitat for wild bees such as loose sticks, pine cones and drilled holes. The Garden City boxes were installed as an Eagle scout project and feature doors that can be opened to observe the nesting bees.
Snow, Lindquist, and Laverty are passionate about helping people understand native bees and how to help effectively. Honeybees are important ambassadors, but there is much more to the world of bees.
“Getting people to understand … you really need to help, because they’ve lost habitat and you have that habitat right there in your backyard,” says Snow. “It’s so easy. They only need a little bit of space.”
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Find out more about the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
Sierra Laverty will be teaching a two-part class, “Plants for Pollinators & Predators” at the Idaho Botanical Garden Mon, Aug. 27 at Wed, August 29 at 6:30pm. Cost is $25. For information and register, visit idahobotanicalgarden.org/learn/adult-education/