By Paul James
The majority of stories written about bees focus on Apis mellifera, the familiar honeybee that’s native to Europe. Makes sense considering its enormous value in pollinating food crops. But I’ve always been fascinated by our native bees. They rarely get any press, yet they too are effective pollinators. I’d like you to meet them.
First up, the big and beautiful bumble bee. Since I was a kid, I’ve loved watching these bees do their pollinating thing, especially on squash and okra, where they seem to disappear deep into the flowers and then emerge loaded with pollen. Like honey bees, bumble bees are social insects, although their community consists of far fewer residents, from only 50 to maybe a few hundred (honey bee colonies number in the thousands). Bumble bees are fairly docile, although they will sting if provoked, and unlike honey bees, they can sting repeatedly.
Carpenter bees, also known as wood bees, resemble bumble bees, but their abdomen is black and shiny with no yellow markings. They’re solitary creatures that create nests in wood, particularly soft and unpainted wood, and as a result can cause damage to structures. They are effective pollinators, and while females can sting, they rarely do. Males don’t pose a threat because they lack a stinger.
Sweat bees are so named because they’re attracted to sweat, both for the moisture and the minerals. There are over 500 species in North America, and their colors vary from black to brown to shiny metallic green, which is the one I see most often. These little bees aren’t the social type, but they’re very important pollinators. The females can inflict a mild sting, but so long as you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone.
Mason bees are small, solitary bees that work in cool, rainy weather when other bees take the day off. For that reason, they’re especially important pollinators in early spring, when various fruits and berries are in flower. And they’re extremely efficient — just two or three mason bees can pollinate an entire apple tree. No, they don’t make honey, but then again they don’t sting either.
The best way to encourage native bees to your garden is to plant lots of flowers, especially natives, and to avoid using chemical sprays or dusts, whether organic or synthetic.
Happy gardening, ya’ll.
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