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The buzz on native bees
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The buzz on native bees

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Large moths with their wings carefully spread, small beetles, and several bee species fill the display boxes of pinned insects sitting on the tables in the Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church’s main hall.

Standing in front of this display, Kristen Potter, an insect physiologist at Northern Arizona University, speaks to the Master Gardeners Association to give them “the buzz on native bees."

“About 75 percent of all flowering plants on Earth rely on animals to transfer their pollen, that makes about one in every three bites you eat,” says Potter, as she points to a power point slide with pictures of fruits and vegetables. “I would like to point out that chocolate is on that list,”

In fact, bees are so important to flowering crops that captive honeybees are sometimes driven from crop to crop at different times of the year to help pollinate plants around the country. However, due to a number of factors such as disease, habitat loss, and pesticides, bee colonies are currently on the decline. Both feral and captive bees have been threatened by these issues, but this is why the native bee species are especially important.

As it turns out, our native mason bees are much more efficient pollinators than honeybees at pollinating some plants. In fact, studies show that it would take 2,000 honeybees to pollinate the same number of tomato plants as only around 25 of our native mason bees.

“Many people don’t know that honeybees are not actually native to North America,” Potter says, “they were introduced to the Eastern United States about 400 years ago. Then they arrived from the back of a wagon in Utah in 1848, and arrived in Arizona shortly after that. So it’s only been about 150 years that they’ve been in Arizona, and our native pollinators have been pollinating plants since long before that.”

Potter encourages the gardeners to help conserve these bee species by encouraging the bees to live in gardens and yards. Arizona’s native mason bees are a small, black, solitary species that won’t do damage to houses or wooden structures because they don’t drill their holes themselves, making them ideal for a garden in need of a pollinator. Providing nests by drilling holes in wood, or leaving bare ground for the bees to make a home will invite the insects to gardens. She assures her audience that the bees that live in these holes don’t swarm, and therefore, won’t be motivated to sting.

Potter asks that the gardeners limit their use of pesticides that will kill the bees, because this is one of the factors in the recent bee colony decline. She then tells gardeners to plant more native plants, with a variety of shapes, colors, and time of the year they’re in bloom.

There is also a lot of efforts to keep track of pollinators around the country that are based on citizen science data. The website bumblebeewatch.org is started by the Xerxes program, an invertebrate conservation effort, and invites users to send pictures of bumblebees so they can identify and take in data for these bees. This data is used to assess the conservation needs of bumblebees and track where certain rare species are in the country.

Potter especially emphasizes that there are currently no entries on this website from Flagstaff, and challenges locals to change that. The bumblebees look very different from mason and honey bees, and can be distinguished by their large round bodies, and thick hair.

Potter warns the gardeners that bee conservation is not optional. Without bees, many ecosystems would collapse and flowering crops would be in short supply. However, for local gardeners, these steps could not only help save native bees, but would also help keep their gardens healthy and vibrant.

Kailey Roberts is this year's NAU/NASA Space Grant science writing intern at the Daily Sun.

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