After joining the Northeast Kansas Beekeeper’s Association last spring and taking their quick course on beekeeping, I was rewarded with new knowledge and interest in both honeybees and pollination. I have since joined Bee Chat in Hiawatha, KS, a group dedicated to studying honeybees and their care. However, I do not yet have my own bees, so my focus has been on developing a pollination chart showing which plants are blooming when and where, and providing that information to fellow beekeepers. While doing my research, I realized that native bees not only out number honeybees, they are often better at pollinating, especially native plants.
What does that mean to us as gardeners? Should we give up our love for honey and our ideas about the lore of honeybees? I think it means that we need to continue educating ourselves about the roles played by the different pollinators in our gardens. The public mainly hears about what the honeybees are doing, thanks to news articles about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), pesticides, and honey prices, but the story behind the scenes is what goes on with our native bees. The story that headlined 2014 about massive irresponsible killing of 25,000 bees in Oregon was one of the few stories that mentioned native bumblebees.
“We need to continue educating ourselves about the roles played by the different pollinators in our gardens.”
Learning about our native bees and pollinators is not as easy as I thought it would be. While there are many publications and reports about butterflies, it is difficult to find information on the 4,000 species of native bees in North America. What I did find both amazed and awed me. While most people recognize honeybees are important pollinators, I now know that native bees are better pollinators for many crops. Honeybees pollinate crops such as wheat, almonds, peaches, and olives, but the native bees are better at pollination of many native crops, such as pumpkins, watermelons, sunflowers, blueberries, and cranberries. Also, I have read that the honeybees have not figured out how to pollinate our native members of the solanaceae family, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and potatoes.
Most native bees are also solitary, meaning they nest alone in the ground or in hollows made by wood boring insects in trees and structures. Most bumblebees however, are colonizers, living in underground nests. These bumblebees are perhaps the most easily recognized native bee, although these make up a very small proportion of the native bees out there. As a garden photographer, I have seen many species I have yet to identify in my photos; however, I have been able to identify orchid, leafcutter, orchard, mason, and sweat bees.
“Most native bees are also solitary, meaning they nest alone.”
By helping native bees, we are also helping honeybees and other pollinators including butterflies, wasps, and beetles. Plant a native pollinator border or bed, add natives to your existing garden beds, leave brush piles and natural borders along wooded areas alone, avoid the use of insecticides in your yard and gardens, and learn how to identify native pollinators so you can teach someone else about them and their benefits!