When we think of bees, most of us think of fields, farms and honey. But many of our native bee species don’t make honey, and the plants they pollinate don’t just live in fields or farms, but also in swamps and forests. Kristin Andres is associate director of education and outreach for the Association to Preserve Cape Cod and she says we have a lot to learn about our 770 species of bees native to eastern North America.
“One of the interesting things to learn about our native bees is that many of them live above ground, some live underground, and the majority of them are solitary nests.”
This means that unlike European bees, which live with thousands of bees in a hive, most native bees live alone. They emerge from the ground in the spring, mate and lay their eggs in hollow reeds or tunnels on the ground, then they die. And 25% of our native bee species specialize in a specific type of pollen.
“So they have particular plants that they need, that’s the only pollen they can feed their young, but they also evolved with those plants, so they have special abilities to carry pollen,” she says. . “For example, squash bees are able to carry squash pollen into pumpkins because they have hairs on their scopa far enough apart to carry large pollens.”
There are three species of squash bees in eastern North America, and studies show that they are much more effective than bees at pollinating summer squash, winter squash, zucchini, pumpkins and other squash. While these squash were first grown in the Andes and Mesoamerica, the natives brought them north and cultivated them in our region for thousands of years, so the bees followed.
“If that’s the plant they need for their life cycle, they’ll be there. And there are also bees that specialize, little bees that specialize in blueberries, so it’s this whole family, so it’s bearberry, dwarf blueberry, highbush blueberry, blueberry,” Kristin explains. “And those are plants that we take for granted when we roam our forests here on Cape Cod because we don’t have lots of diversity, but they are very important plants for our whole forest ecology.”
In fact, in most local forests, these plants make up the bulk of the understory. There are 10 species of native bees that specialize in pollinating this genus of berries, vaccinium, which also includes cranberries. Many species of native bees specializing in vaccinium plants visit more flowers per minute and deposit more pollen per minute than honey bees and these native bees are ready to forage when it is cold and wet – which, as we all know, is often here in the spring.
Specialized native bees also pollinate other important native crops – foods like lettuce, sunflower seeds, Jerusalem artichokes, safflower, chicory, sweet potatoes, ground cherries and tomatillos. Kristin says it’s important to remember that bees aren’t the only species worth saving.
“Saving the bees is really more about saving our wild bees, because one in four species of bees in the United States is at risk of extinction and there is so much we don’t know about our wild bees.”
There are so many interesting things that people are just beginning to study about our native bee species. For example, some researchers in the southeastern United States found in 2021 that prescribed burning can improve nesting habitat for ground-nesting bees. And plants we don’t usually think of as having flowers — like maple trees — are actually important food sources for these bees when they emerge in early spring. Beyond the campaign to save bees that most of us are now aware of, it’s also time to celebrate these species. They have so much to show us about this place we live in and what it needs to thrive.
Here is a link to a blog post about the study of native bees at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.