Bumblebee at a flower

These days, you hear a lot about the plight of honeybees and how crucial they are to the food we eat. What you don’t often hear is that honeybees are actually latecomers to this continent — they were introduced by European settlers. And flowers and fruits got along fine before they arrived, because there were native bees.

"We have around 4,000 species of native bees in North America," says Rich Hatfield, conservation biologist with The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. "They’ve been maintaining the flora diversity of North America for thousands to millions of years, and they’re essential to continuing that."

That important role makes it worrisome that native bees are also declining in numbers. You can help scientists studying the problem by participating in a project to look for the cutest, fuzziest bee around — Bumble Bee Watch.

Bee Lifestyles

Native bees don’t often get our attention, partly because they lead less conspicuous lives than honeybees. Many native bees are solitary, and while the 47 or so species of bumblebee do live in colonies with a queen, their nests are usually hidden underground. The colonies are also much smaller: only 25 to 50 bees per colony in some species, up to maybe about 500, compared to a typical honeybee hive with 50,000 individuals. So you’re less likely to see their comings and goings.

But probably the biggest reason they fly under our radar is that they don’t make those huge quantities of honey that appeal to us sweets-loving primates. Bumblebees do make little wax pots, where the queen lays her eggs, and they do gather nectar and pollen to fill them to feed their young. But their strategy for getting the species through lean times is different.

"Honeybees make honey to eat over the winter," Hatfield says. "Bumblebees, instead of eating over the winter, they hibernate." In fact, most of the colony dies off at the end of the season in the fall. Only the new queen bees born then survive to start new colonies in the spring.

Native Connections 

Honeybees are not a natural part of the North American ecosystem. They’re essentially livestock, trucked around to where they’re needed in the growing season. "Almost all honeybees pollinating crops are coming from somebody’s hive that’s managed and tended to," he says. "For example, during the almond bloom in California, honeybees come from all over the country — Florida, New England, the Midwest."

Honeybees were imported to pollinate imported plants, which include many that we think of as iconically American, like apples. But we also eat many plants that are native to this hemisphere, and for those, bumblebees and other native bees are much better pollinators.

"Tomatoes, in order to get better fruit, require what’s called buzz pollination — a bee vibrates its wings at a specific frequency, and that causes the pollen to be released from the anthers," he says. "Honeybees can’t do that, so honeybees don’t visit tomatoes, and that’s where bumblebees really excel." Blueberries, peppers, eggplant and squash are other native crops that are also better pollinated by native bees.

Bee Conservation

So does this mean we can relax about colony collapse disorder and the problems of honeybees? Of course not — but it means we should be equally concerned that our native bees are in trouble.

As many as a third of native bee species are thought to be threatened, at risk from factors including disease, pesticide use and habitat decline. "If you look at land use change in the last hundred years in North America, we have dramatically changed the grassland and prairies that used to be so abundant — mowing areas where bees nest, haying them, plowing fields where they nest underground," Hatfield says.

And while honeybees are commercially important, trouble with the natives suggests trouble with the whole interconnected ecosystem that we depend on.

"Honeybees are incredibly important for agriculture, but they’re a managed species, kind of like chickens or cows," he says. "The fact that we’re seeing parallel declines in our native bees is alarming. It suggests that whatever’s going on isn’t just affecting the managed [species] — it’s broader than that. It’s a red flag that something is wrong."

Bumble Bee Watch

You can help scientists who are studying our native pollinators by taking photos and uploading them to Bumble Bee Watch. The tips here will help you get photos that will enable their experts to tell the species apart. "What we encourage folks to do is to take a few different photos to get as many different views of the bumblebee as you can," Hatfield says. 

Although many bumblebees seem rather laid-back, there are some fast-moving ones. Especially if you’re using your phone, taking a short video and extracting a photo will often be better in focus.

But is photographing the bees safe for you? Bumblebees can sting, and unlike honeybees, it’s not a suicide mission. Their stinger doesn’t come out, so they can sting more than once. But they usually don’t. "They don’t tend to be as aggressive as honeybees because they don’t have that honey resource to protect," Hatfield says.

"I’ve been working intimately with bumblebees for 15 years, and I’ve been stung maybe five times," he says. "My daughter now pets bumblebees on flowers. They’re very docile creatures." But if you’re not convinced, that’s OK. Just take a picture of the bee where you find it.

Your photos will help scientists know what’s going on with different bumblebee species and where to target their efforts. "We can get an idea of where they are living and where certain species should be found but aren’t being found," he says. "We can’t initiate conservation on the ground until we know where they are still living."

Other Ways to Help the Bees 

You can also help bumblebees and other pollinators by using good practices in your yard and garden. If you must use pesticides, do your research first. "Insecticides are a tool, and tools have specific tasks — if you have a loose screw, you use a screwdriver; if you have a nail, you use a hammer. Pesticides are the same way," Hatfield explains. "If you have a specific problem, find out what that problem is and use a product targeted specifically to that problem."

It’s also a great idea to create a habitat in your yard, but be careful when you buy plants. Many big growers are now applying pesticides that are taken up by the plant as it’s growing and can persist for as long as five years. "The plant takes it into its roots, and it’s expressed in every cell in the plant, including the flowers, pollen, nectar and fruit," he says. "So it’s inside the blueberry — you can’t wash it off."

You should avoid using these neonicotinoid pesticides, and although staff at the big chains may not know whether their plants are grown this way, Hatfield says, people need to start asking the question. He says, "They will start caring if people want to know the answer and decide not to buy there."

And if you care about the bees, you do want to know the answer, or your purchase may have the opposite effect from what you intend. "You’re buying what you think are pollinator-friendly plants that may have these systemic pesticides already inside them," he says. "You may think that you’re helping pollinators, but, in fact, you’re killing them."

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