Honey bees? Native bees? What's the Difference?
Written by Tobias Roberts
During the past couple of years, numerous reports have researched and described the severe perils that honeybees face throughout the country. Talks about pesticide drift and its role in colony collapse disorder are routinely making news across the United States, leading many environmental groups to push for more rigorous control of pesticide use on farms. Honey bees, however, are just one of the thousands of different bee species worldwide. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), "there are over 20,000 known bee species in the world, and 4,000 of them are native to the United States. They range from the tiny (2 mm) and solitary Perdita minima, known as the world's smallest bee, to kumquat-sized species of carpenter bees."
Biodiversity in all aspects of life (including insect and bee populations) is the key indicator of the health of an ecosystem. With more diversity and variety, species will be better adapted to cope with the diversity of threats. Because the honeybee has provided humans with a nutritious (and delicious) source of sweetness for thousands of years, many people have neglected to understand and appreciate the importance of the thousands of other bee species.
Fortunately, environmental groups, farmers, ecologists, and other concerned citizens are beginning to recognize the vast importance that native bees play in the wider ecosystem. In this article, we look at the main differences between honey bees and native bees and explore some of the essential ecosystem services native bees offer (for free). We then look at how many native bees survive the harsh winter months and what we can do to help support native bee populations.
What is the difference between Honeybees and Native Bees?
With over 20,000 different bee species worldwide, there are significant differences in how bees live. While the famous honey bee is renowned for its impressive social organization in the hive, other species of bees are less social animals. Many bees do not live in those infamous hives but rather nest in pre-existing cavities dug by rodents or other small animals (bumblebees) or carve out nests in wood (carpenter bees).
Furthermore, only about 5 percent of bee species make honey.
All bee species rely on pollen and nectar as their source of sustenance. Nectar gives bees an energy or carbohydrate source, while pollen provides protein and other nutrients. Most bees use the pollen they collect to feed their larvae. As bees gather pollen, they also inadvertently transfer that pollen from plant to plant, thus providing vital pollination services needed by plants to produce food.
Another main difference between honeybees and native bees is that most experts concur that native bees are significantly more efficient at providing those essential pollination services. In a recent interview published by LSU Agricultural Center, Professor Bryan Danforth, an entomologist at Cornell University, stated that "native pollinators are two to three times better pollinators than honeybees."
Native bees are the primary pollination specialists for important commercial fruit crops such as cherries, blueberries, and cranberries. Because native bees have been in North America for much longer than the imported European honey bee, they also have innate habits that make them adept at pollinating hundreds of important native plants, including native crops such as pumpkins, gourds, and sunflowers. Over one-third of our food crops require bees for pollination, and native bees are not only better pollinators, but also more numerous than honeybees.
Besides pollinating essential food crops, native bees also help to pollinate plants that serve other human purposes. Native bees play a significant role in pollinating crops that provide fibers for our clothes, bedding, and other similar purposes. Bees, including native bees, are responsible for about 66 percent of the pollination of most cotton harvests.
Bees also pollinate major oil crops, including canola and soybeans. Native bees have been shown to improve soybean harvests by up to 20 percent when they're present in large numbers. Native bees also pollinate a wide range of other plants that humans do not harvest for food or industrial purposes. In this way, native bees also provide soil erosion control by encouraging rigorous plant and ground cover growth.
How do Native Bees Survive the Winter?
In the previous blog post, we discussed how honey bees survive the winter by bunching together inside their hive and "vibrating" their bodies to create heat. Honey bees don't hibernate but rely on their honey reserve to stay nourished throughout the winter when flowering plants are not exactly abundant. But what about native bee species, many of which don't live in giant hives or don't produce honey? How do they survive the winter?
Because of their vast diversity, different native bee species have developed various strategies for surviving the winter or passing their lineage on to the next generation. Many native bees that make their nests in the ground, in stems, or in other types of wood to lay their pupa in the fall. The bees will die off over the winter, and only the larva or pupa will survive. Like other animals who hibernate during the winter, these larvae also spend the winter months in a state of paused development within the nests. Minor chemical changes within their bodies keep them from freezing until the warmer spring temperatures arrive.
In the cuckoo bee's case, the female lays her young pupa in the nest of another bee (most commonly the bumblebee). She leaves those young to overwinter and then be "reared" by the adopted clan.
Tips to Support Native Bees in your Yard
As we have seen above, native bees play crucial ecosystem roles. During the winter months, homeowners can do several things to support these bee species' unique nesting and hibernating habits. A few "winter tips" for how you can best support native bee populations include:
- Leave the fall leaves on the ground, as these provide shelter and insulation for native bees that burrow their nests underground.
- Minimize ground disturbances in the fall months not to affect native bee nests, usually located in the first 6-12 inches of soil.
- Be on the lookout for cavity nests. Some native bee species, like mason bees, create cavity nests on twigs or branches. If you happen to come across one of these nests when pruning the bushes or trees around your home, either leave that branch for spring pruning or carefully remove the cavity and place it in a safe, dry place (your garage might be an option).
- Lastly, consider planting early flowering species in your yard so that when the larvae of native bees awake from their winter slumber, they'll have a ready, nearby food source.
Project Hive Pet Company's dog toys and treats sport the honey beehive design, but that doesn't mean we only support the honeybee. Native bees need our attention too. That's why every purchase of our products supports the growth of healthy wildflower habitat in North America to nourish and sustain all species of bees.