Native Bees

By Becky Jane Newbold

Rich and succulent lawns of clover are rarely found in modern landscapes. Trends toward perfectly manicured grass landscapes add to the casualties for one of the most essential insects in our world:  the bee.

Essentially, pollinators are at the root of our existence.   They pollinate the food we eat, crops such as cotton (impacting the clothes we wear)and food crops utilized for foraging animals such as cattle.  Wildlife from song birds to grizzly bears depend on bees and other pollinators.

bees in flight web

Beekeepers across the nation do their part to preserve pollinators and provide honey.  But while an estimated 4,000 species of bees are native to North America, the honeybee is not on that list.  Introduced in America to Jamestown by Europeans in the 1600s, the honeybee quickly acclimated to its new surroundings when introduced to America and is a valued source of pollination and honey.

In recent years, honeybee numbers have declined causing alarm.  In addition to parasites, colony collapse disorder has created a crisis in the honeybee world, causing the demise of many hives.  In many areas, the bee business transports honeybee hives to pollinate crops, such as almond crops in California where there are few native bees to complete the process.  But the mobility of the honeybee may be contributing to the impact of pathogens and stresses which may be linked to colony collapse, Cornell entomology professor Bryan Danforth was quoted as saying by reporter Krisy Gashler. (Chronicle Online, Oct. 24, 2011).

Most native bees, with the exception of the bumble bee, are solitary.  Honeybees are social, living in colonies.  They communicate locations and quality of food sources through intricate dances.  These dances are designed to quickly assemble and deploy a large troop of foragers, when a new food source is located.  A wide variety of other European bees, Italian, Russian, Caucausian to name a few, continue to be introduced by hobby beekeepers.  A smaller bee, often referred to as the “heirloom” bee, is preferred by some.

Pollination and honey production may be the top reasons cited for keeping bees by modern gardeners.  But a long time beekeeper from a southern county in Tennessee says the bee is like the canary in the coal mine, an indicator of our earth’s climate condition.

While honey bee populations are on the decline due to pathogens, viruses and fungi issues, a bigger question is why are the bees so susceptible to infection and does an overall lack of balance of natural defenses in nature play a role in the decline in vigor?

Pesticides, heribicides, hybrid plants and disease-resistant coatings on seeds have greatly increased harvest for farmers but these modifications may result in decreased nutritional value.  Organic gardening methods protect the genetic integrity of plants, the overall health of the bees and, ultimately, humans.

According to the USDA, bees are responsible for pollination of 75 percent of the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in America.

c talley beekeeper web“Honey bees are not the only pollinators at risk. Native bee species have declined in diversity over the years,” Anna Morkeski and Anne L. Averill reported in the November 2010 issue of the American Bee Journal.  Especially at risk may be the social bumble bee, perhaps due to one or more of the following:  “climate change, pesticides, land-use changes, agricultural policies, competition, disturbances to reproductive habits and pathogen introduction.”

Bumble bees have a unique pollination method known as buzz-pollination.  The bumble bee has the ability to disengage its wings from the flight muscle allowing it to shake their entire body.  The resulting vibration “significantly increases the release of pollen” making them especially good for tomatoes, peppers, blueberries and cranberries.  (“The Plight of the Bees,” Environmental Science & Technology).

By becoming involved in beekeeping or native bee preservation, the local gardener can impact the overall health of the environment and the longevity of the food supply.

Many resources exist for getting started in beekeeping today.  Beekeeper associations and your county local Extension Service have contacts and resources to help the beginner be successful.

Beekeeper Charles Talley told how he, as a young boy in the 1950s, followed a swarm of bees across a field, banging a metal dishpan as he went.  “I don’t know if it did anything, but I had always heard that was what you were supposed to do,” he added.  As the swarm neared the edge of the woods, they settled into a tree for the evening.  Next day, Charles and his father with a hollow log in tow, cut the tree and with a shake, Charles explained, watched the mass of bees fall into the log.  They plugged the hole, moved the log to their home and began the process of beekeeping.

charles joan web

Years later, when he returned to the hobby, Charles told how he watched Hohenwald’s Carlos Holland place a hive near a tree full of bees.  “He cut a notch in the tree then began tapping on the hive.  We watched the bees crawl out into the hive.  I even saw the queen,” he said.

Local beekeepers provide the best source of pure honey.   “The honey industry, however, is allowed to add up to 40 percent corn syrup to honey,” Beekeeper Bob Gilkey said.  “And it does not have to be listed on the label.”

Honey provides numerous health benefits.  A good source of vitamins and minerals (dependent on sources used for pollination) and antioxidants, honey also contains antibacterial and antifungal properties and has been used for skin care and treating wounds, online sources indicate.

Bats, hummingbirds and flies are also pollinators.  “Bats pollinate more than 300 kinds of plants used by humans,” Cristián Samper wrote in the December 2007 issue of the Smithsonian magazine.

To help pollinators, plant native wildflowers, keep gardens pesticide-free, mow meadow areas only once each year when flowers are dead or dormant and set lawn mower blades high to encourage clover growth.  Native bees suffer decline due to loss of meadows, an influx of invasive plants that crowd out native species, mowing vegetation formerly left natural, non-selective herbicides that kill native plants and pesticide poisoning.

Native plants are more resistant to pests, rarely require fertilizers and are drought resistant.  Use of chemicals in the landscape is believed to affect all of life, especially bees.  Consider planting a variety of plants that flower over the entire season to provide pollen and nectar for bees.  Native plants promote local biological diversity.

Avoid using mulch or black plastic to prevent weeds as ground nesting bees, such as bumble bees do not have the energy to  burrow through inches of mulch then dig nesting tunnels, the Humane Society of the United States advises.

“Beekeeping ain’t what it used to be,” the local beekeeper from the south said.  “Changes in our climate and use of deadly herbicides have destabilized the environment,” he added.  “Our environment is getting progressively sterile.”  Although he continues to be hopeful, after 38 years of beekeeping, the heart of the bees’ problem, in his estimation, is the acidity of our air.  “Diseases and parasites affecting bees are symptoms of the climate,” he said.

Small changes in small gardens and landscapes across America can have a great impact on the overall health of our environment.

Delving into the world of beekeeping made us keenly aware of the native bees using our landscape.  As we began our search to photograph honeybees, we discovered a wealth of bumble bees, sweat bees and many others!

Learn more about native bees in this resource we found by the USDA.


This article was originally published in the May 2012 issue of Validity Magazine.  

About Becky Jane Newbold

Becky Jane Newbold thrives on new experiences and is always on the lookout for new stories to tell. Whether she is riding her motorcycle, photographing wildlife attracted to her garden, creating original works of art or enjoying home-cooked meals with her family, Becky Jane’s passion is staying current with fresh, innovative ideas. Raised in the newspaper industry, she is committed to truth in media. See more at

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