Next time you have your morning cup of coffee, thank bees! Coffee beans depend heavily on bees for pollination. So do avocados, almonds, onions, apples and many berries. We’re probably most familiar with honey bees, who were brought here from Europe in the early 1600s. Working alongside them are North America’s incredible variety of native bees. The North American honey bee hasn’t been here for 14 million years, but we do have more than 4,000 native bee species, and more than 300 of them live in New Jersey.
Honey bees live socially in large hives – the proverbial “hive of activity.” Many of our native bees, on the other hand, are solitary and build their own nests. Solitary bees tend to be less aggressive than other stinging insects. Do watch your step, though, because more than 70% of North America’s native bee species build ground nests. North American bees also live in widely varying climates. While some live in the desert or the tropics, some like the Arctic bumblebee play it cool in the far north of Alaska.
Many bees have names reflecting their unique work skills, like miner, leafcutter, and mason bees. Carpenter bees, our state’s largest bees at 1-inch-long, bore precise tunnels into unfinished wood, as many unlucky homeowners have found. The female carpenter bee builds her nest’s partitions with a particleboard-like substance formed from sawdust and her own saliva. Sweat bees are the smallest in New Jersey, measuring less than 1 cm long, and are named for their attraction to human sweat. And bumblebees don’t need the gym. That “buzz” you hear them make is the bee vibrating its muscles to shake a flower’s pollen grains loose.
Not that bees don’t take breaks. The male squash bee naps in the flowers he pollinates, then has to chew his way out of the shriveled bloom the next day. Some local bees have other unusual habits. Female rose-mallow bees can walk on water. The polyester bee lines the egg pockets in her nest with a natural cellophane-like secretion that she seals up like a Ziploc bag. This material, which allows the bee to build her ground nest in wet areas, has been studied as a naturally decomposing plastic substitute.
Honey bees are essential to our food production. And even though native bees usually live alone or in smaller groups, they also play a vital role in our native ecosystems as pollinators to many plants and food crops. They forage earlier or later in the day and during wetter or cooler conditions than honey bees. Many native bees’ zigzag flight pattern also increases the chances of cross pollination.
Both honey bee and native bee populations have been declining. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation lists 16 North American bees as vulnerable, 4 as imperiled, and 31 as critically imperiled, including 9 that may be extinct. Even though these seem like small numbers compared to 4,000, the threats to these few will affect the others.
Local bees in danger include the cuckoo bee, the yellow-banded bumble bee, and the rusty-patched bumblebee, whose numbers have declined by an estimated 86%. Threats to all bees include agricultural and urban development, fragmentation and destruction of habitat, mites and diseases, insecticide use, replacement of important flowers by invasive plants and changes in climate. climate change.
How can we provide habitat for bees? For food, grow native plants that flower in different seasons to provide longer-lasting sources of pollen and nectar. Line property edges with flowering plants and shrubs or, if the neighbors don’t mind, let them grow “wild” to provide food for pollinators. Check sites like https://njaes.rutgers.edu/fs1280/ for lists of plants beneficial to bees.
For shelter, leave small piles of well-drained, excavated soil for ground-nesters. Build a bee box from unfinished wood or leave dead stumps in place for wood-nesting bees. Limit or eliminate pesticide use and spray in the evening when bees are not active.
One of the most important ways to help bees is to preserve land! You can see the benefits preserved land offers simply by visiting the pollinator meadow here at the Dvoor Farm, where bees can be found buzzing about the milkweed.
Studies described on xerces.org have found that for some New Jersey, Canadian, and Californian crops, protecting 25% to 30% of the land as natural habitat allows 100% of the pollination needs of that crop to be met. Native bees nest in the natural areas and fly into the fields to pollinate the crops. When we work together to preserve farmland and neighboring natural spaces, we’re helping some of our smallest partners – the bees!
By Kristin Winters, HLT Land Steward