By Dr. Heather Stein -
Over 4000 species of bees are native to North America. Bumblebees, digger bees, carpenter bees -- to name but a few -- pollinate not only as many as 75% of the plants that grow on our hillsides and in our forests, but also many of the crops that grow in our fields and home gardens -- like pumpkins, tomatoes, and blueberries. The imported honey bee, however, is responsible for the bulk of our agricultural needs. Indeed, California's almond crop alone relies on over 2 million colonies of honeybees transported around the state by specialized, commercial beekeepers.
David Hackenberg won the American Beekeeper Association's President's Award in 2007 for drawing the public's attention to what he called "Colony Collapse Disorder" -- a marked decline in the honeybee population without any apparent cause and the dead bodies of workers piled outside the hives. Since this alarming call-to-arms, people and governments alike have taken measures to keep these vital pollinators alive.
On August 1st, the USDA released an encouraging report on honey bee colony health in the U.S. For the first quarter of 2017; colony loss was down by 27% among operations with five or more colonies. Smaller operations, however, continue to see an overall loss (20%) in population. The report points to many causes for declining health, namely Varroa mites and other parasites, pesticides, diseases like foulbrood and stonebrood, and such environmental stressors as starvation. The USDA, however, only tracks honey bees -- the very non-native species whose hives are used in the migratory beekeeping that many scientists believe are a cause of poor colony health.
North America's native bees, however, nest in a variety of places and pollinate local flora without human help. Miner bees dig elaborate tunnel systems underground. Leafcutters and masons use already existing holes and crevices in rocks and trees as habitats. Carpenter bees burrow through wood with their mandibles. As local environments change, bee colonies often cannot adapt.
How to help
Plant a bee friendly garden with local wildflowers, empty patches and dead wood for nesting, and a water source like a pond, birdbath or dripping fountain. Regional planting guides for the United States are available for free through the Pollinator Project. Find out more from the USDA Forest Service.
Avoid any of the over three hundred insecticides that contain neonicotinoids. The Pesticide Research Institute maintains a database to help identify the least toxic options.
Images by: Kostic Dusan and Irina Schmidt
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