Bees – Pollinators and Friends

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Pollinators and Flowering Plants

If you take a look at your garden right now (and it's in season), you can be sure that there are dozens of pollinators, large and small, working diligently to collect pollen or eat nectar. These creatures are essential partners with many of the vegetables and fruit trees in our gardens, who rely on them entirely for their reproduction.

This partnership with the animal kingdom dates back about 130 million years to when plants, known as angiosperms, started to rely on other organisms to effectively spread their genetic stock through flowers. Before angiosperms, plants largely relied on the wind for reproduction; "gymnosperms" can still be seen in our gardens as pine trees and ferns.

The rise of angiosperms was rapid as they became wildly successful and they now comprise 80% of the entire plant kingdom.  The dominance of flowering plants has changed the earth's biosphere through their ecological impact, but this rapid rise wouldn't have occurred without the symbiotic co-evolution of insects along with them, including butterflies (Lepidoptera), wasps and bees (Hymenoptera), and even beetles and flies. 

It's amazing how much of our agriculture is dependent on these pollinators to continue their mutually beneficial relationship with plants.

Honeybees and Pollination

No event characterizes how modern agriculture ignores ecology than the annual pollination of almond trees in California by commercial beehives.  Because of the rise of popularity in almonds and their economic value, over 800,000 acres of almond trees have been planted in the San Joaquin Valley of California. 

The problem is that the almond growers need honeybees for a week to 10 days in February to pollinate the trees' flowers, but because they are planted as large monocultures there are not enough other flowers to support any local honeybees for the rest of the year.  Desperate to pollinate their crop, the almond tree growers rent honeybee hives from across the country to be shipped to California for the annual pollination

It's been estimated that over 70% of the commercial beehives in the United States are shipped to California for this annual event and put incredible stress on colonies.

Honeybees in America

Honeybees are not native to North America. They were first brought to America on ships delivering supplies to Jamestown in 1621 and quickly spread and became feral. Even though they aren't native to America, humans have had a special relationship with honeybees dating back over 9000 years when the first farmers started keeping beehives.

Honeybees like to eat pollen from the same kinds of vegetables and fruits that humans enjoy. Like us, they have a better sense of smell than taste. If you'd like to learn more about honeybees, their relationship with us, facing them, I highly recommend the following two videos. The first uses custom bee cameras and trackers to discover how neonicotinoids (modern pesticides) might be affecting honeybee's sense of direction while the second goes into a bit more detail about our relationship with honeybees.

 

Honeybee Relatives

Honeybees make up 11 subspecies in America, but there are over 4000 species of wild bees in the United States, including bumblebees, leafcutter bees, and mason bees.  These wild bees don't have the same level of public awareness as honeybees, but they are interesting in their own right and break many of the stereotypes we associate with bees.  For example, most wild bees are actually not very social, don't make honey, and rarely if ever sting.

Native Bees Info

 

Even though honeybees are wonderful pollinators of many vegetables and fruits we eat, you'd be surprised to know that honeybees aren't the most efficient pollinators in our gardens. They are also unable to pollinate tomato flowers, that require a type of pollination called "buzz pollination" that vibrates the flower at a specific frequency to shake the pollen loose. Only certain wild bee species, like bumblebees or mason bees, can correctly vibrate their muscles to pollinate tomato flowers. Other crops, like blueberries, cranberries and even cherry trees, are more effectively pollinated by wild bees.

A few years ago, we had a speaker for our Sprouts school program nicknamed the "bee lady", who was wonderful with the kids and showed the inside of a mason bee's individual nest.  She had an extra colony of mason bees with her and started us on a path where we've kept them every year since. 

Mason bees are a great bee to keep near children since they are very docile and don't require much care.  They emerge in the spring (usually in April, but it depends on the weather) and will only be alive for 6-8 weeks after that.  In that short period of time, the males will fertilize the females and the females will collect food and pollen from thousands of nearby flowering plants to provide for new bee cells.  They also collect mud to seal the entrance to each new bee home.

You can purchase mason bees online at certain times of the year, but I also recommend checking out your local beekeeping associations, where you may find individuals who have extra mason bees. 

You can construct your own bee "homes" for them to expand into, using thin cardboard tubes or 5/16" hollow bamboo sticks.  You can also make it a fun homeschooling woodworking project by using a drill or drill press to make holes in thick wood stock that 6-8 inches thick.

 

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