Early one morning last summer, I was strolling along my vegetable gardens when a somewhat troubling peculiarity caught my attention: although our zucchini plants were blooming, the only pollinator in sight was a black and silver native bee engaged in gathering pollen in the heart of one of the blossoms.
I wondered, “Where are all the honey bees?” We’re all familiar with them: those with the black and honey-colored abdomens, those that we rely upon for the pollination of many food crops, those that swarm to almost any field, shrub, or tree laden with flowers. In light of the fact that zucchini flowers open for less than a day, I further questioned, “Would this year’s crop be diminished due to inadequate pollination?”
As I researched this conundrum, I gained quite a bit of insight. Eric Madden, assistant pollinator program director for the Xerces Society states, “Honey bees are exceptionally finicky about the weather. They won’t fly when it’s cool, cloudy or rainy, whereas our native wild bees are game for inclement days.”
He gives an example of native squash bees, “The squash bees go out before sunrise and are finished foraging by noon... honey bees don’t even wake up until it’s sunny and bright, and by that time, the squash bees have already gotten the job done.”
Squash bees look similar to honey bees, so my black and silver native bee wasn’t one of these, but I do believe it was up and about before the honey bees that morning. Additionally, I’ve become aware that honey bees aren’t particularly attracted to squash blossoms, because their pollen is large, sticky, and prickly.
Madden continues, “The value of honey bees is that you can truck mobile hives to a farm and release tens of thousands of bees into the landscape... but bee for bee, most of the wild ones are vastly more productive.” I also might add that honey bees head for large, showy aggregates of flowers, where our wild bees will seek individual or small clusters of blossoms.
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Many Americans aren’t aware that in North America alone, there are four thousand native bees, fifty of which are bumble bees. Arizona is home to the highest diversity of bees in the United States. Entomologist Kathryn Busby of the University of Arizona says, “People aren’t aware that native bees even exist. Like the jeweled green bees — the beautiful ones, they are all around us.” They’re not likely to draw our attention because many are too small to sting us or don’t even carry a stinger.
Since 2006, Colony Collapse Disorder has decimated honey bee populations by about 30% due to a combination of stressful factors like poor nutrition, parasites, lack of wildflowers and chemicals. Some of these same factors, plus habitat loss and climate change, have caused a decline in our native bee populations as well.
So, is there anything we can do to protect our native bees? Absolutely! Phyllis Styles of Bee City USA implores us to, “Plant native plants, trees and shrubs, reduce lawns, and expand the natural areas in your yard.”
And because 70% of bee species nest in the ground, try to preserve areas of bare undisturbed ground on which the bees can search out old beetle tunnels or dig their own cavities to raise their young. Other wild bee species nest in stumps and old wood, so leave these as natural elements of your landscaping. You can attract several species by drilling holes of different sizes in a block of untreated wood at least 5 inches deep. My husband and I set up a bee hotel and faced it southeast to ensure that the emerging bees would be able to warm up early in the morning. You can find them in gardening catalogs, on the internet, or at Jay’s Bird Barn. Choose one with deep, wooden tubes.
We did have a decent zucchini crop last summer, even though there were a number of unpollinated flowers. Last autumn, I sowed several species of wildflowers near our vegetable gardens in hopes of attracting those bees that are a bit more on the wild side, the native ones.