Earth Day Activity: V.I. BEES
Submitted by Dr. Aaron Pan, Executive Director, Don Harrington Discovery Center
It is Spring! Most days (emphasis on “most”) are warm and bright, trees and shrubs have new flushes of leaves, and redbuds, prairie verbena, and fruit trees in the rose family (cherry, pear, and peach) are in full bloom. This weather beckons you outside and heightens your (or at least your kids’) yearning for summer. As the days get nicer, we hope that you will head outdoors and enjoy some fresh air, and while you are there, we would like to introduce you to a few of your local and very helpful neighbors, our native bees!
There are nearly 4,000 species of native bees living in North America (around 500 in Texas), although most of us are only familiar with a few of these delightful denizens. The honey bee (Apis mellifera), which is ubiquitously known, is actually a European species and has only been in North America since the mid-1600s. Although, it should be noted that a fossil species of the honey bee genus, Apis, is known from around 14 million years ago in Nevada!
While most crop pollination in the United States is performed by honey bees, a number of fruits and vegetables (including tomatoes, peppers, squash, blueberries, cranberries), as well as our wildflowers, shrubs, and trees, can only be pollinated by native bee species or these species are more efficient and successful at pollinating flowers than honey bees. Honey bees are in it for the nectar! Native bees are after the pollen.
If you are a fan of squash, i.e. zucchini, butternut squash, acorn squash, gourds, and pumpkins, you have the fuzzy-wuzzy, squash bees to thank! These bees are specialists, and the females only use the pollen of squash flowers to feed their young. Watermelons, which are also part of the squash family, are also pollinated by a number of native species including bumblebees, long-horned, and sweat bees.
Speaking of long-horned bees, male long-horned bees would certainly make our Texas longhorn cattle jealous. These incredible bees have very long antennae and often cluster together at night to rest on flowers. Long-horned bees are the most diverse group of ‘advanced’ bees (over 200 species) in North America and are often found around sunflower, tickseed, and Indian paintbrush flowers in the spring, summer, and fall in our area.
Bumblebees are always a favorite with people – brightly colored, “furry”, ridiculous and noisy flyers, and large. Some species have even been described as “flying mice” and “hamsters”. Two species occur here in the Panhandle: the Southern Plains Bumblebee and the American Bumblebee. Both, unfortunately, have populations that are in decline. They are robust, beautiful bees that often visit sunflowers in the late afternoon and early evening in the summer on the High Plains and their distinctive “buzz” is important in pollinating a number of plant species.
Most native bees are solitary and unassuming and are much more likely to fly away and escape than to sting if bothered. Even eusocial (group living) native bees, like bumblebees, are more apt to fly away. However, since all (female) bees can sting, one should always look and not touch. The Don Harrington Discovery Center wants everyone to discover these v.i.bees that call the Texas Panhandle home.
This Earth Day, there are a number of things you and your family can do to help our native bee friends, including:
- Plant native species. They require less water, are adapted to our environment, and provide important pollen and nectar resources for native bees.
- Do not use neonicotinoid pesticides. These include Acetamiprid, Clothianidin, Dinotefuran, Imidacloprid, Nienpyram, Thiocloprid, and Thiamethoxam. Several recent studies have provided important evidence that these chemicals may be the major cause of, or at least contribute to, honey bee colony collapse disorder and are very harmful to our native bees as well. To protect your plants, it is best to use organic pesticides or organic insecticidal soaps.
- Make a native bee “house” for your garden or provide some areas of bare soil or sand that native bees can use to make their burrows. Several websites can show you how to make these bee houses, including this one: ( http://www.xerces.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/nests_for_native_bees_fact_sheet_xerces_society.pdf. ) on the Xerces Society for Insect Conservation