At social gatherings, when folks learn that Joseph Wilson is an expert on bees, they sometimes parade their knowledge of these insects: Bees live in large colonies with their mother queen, they make great stores of honey and if they sting, the stinger stays attached to your skin.
This is all true for the honeybee, but not for the 4,000 other species of bee found in the United States and Canada. “They don’t live in big hives, they don’t make honey and they can sting you multiple times,” Wilson said. “All those things they thought applied to bees are an anomaly.”
Honeybees have been husbanded for centuries, valued for their honey, their wax, their ability as supreme pollinators to make an apple orchard all the more fruitful. Their struggle with colony collapse disorder in recent years has captured the popular imagination. As someone who has kept bees, I can say that honeybees are an enchanting, if somewhat needy, form of livestock. The one thing they are not: “a poster child for other bees,” said Wilson, a biology professor at Utah State University.
Honeybees have been husbanded for centuries, valued for their honey, their wax, their ability as supreme pollinators to make an apple orchard all the more fruitful.
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The colony losses of the honeybee — linked to pesticide use, parasitic mites and other factors — have broadened a sense of our reliance on pollinators in general.
Most of us know the large, black and pesky carpenter bee that gnaws into our decks in May or the sweet bumblebee that seems oblivious to its own stem-bending heft.
But what of the small iridescent green bead that is the euglossa bee, or the golden Svastra — stocky, woolly and like a miniature teddy bear with wings.
Yes, bees can sting, but they are generally much more placid than such waspish creatures as yellowjackets and bald-faced hornets, and certainly more agreeable outdoor companions than biting flies. And yet many people can’t distinguish a wasp from a fly or bee, never mind among bee species.
So as folks become more interested in bees, it seemed logical to Wilson and fellow bee biologist Olivia Messinger Carril that people should be more informed as well. The result is their new guide, The Bees in Your Backyard, which offers an introduction to a world of bees.
4,000 Species of bees found in the United States and Canada
Honeybees can be managed in hives because in nature they congregate in tree cavities, but 70 percent of wild bees nest in the ground, often as solitary insects or as a congregation of loners: Think of an apartment building full of singles.
Maybe as many as a third of bees evolved to feed off a given flower or flower family. The others are generalists and will devour whatever nectar and pollen are around.
Here’s another honeybee-vs.-wild-bee quirk: For all the colony losses experienced by beekeepers, they can (with work, skill and expense) repopulate lost honeybee hives. The species isn’t imperiled. Wild bee losses may be more troubling: According to the 2014 book Bumble Bees of North America, as many as half of the 46 species covered may be in decline.
So if we are making gardening resolutions in the new year, it might be good to promise ourselves to do more for these lesser-known bees and to pay more attention to them.
We can attract them the same way we enrich our gardens for other pollinators and ourselves: with an extravagant floriferous garden that blooms abundantly. We should make sure that we steer clear of pesticides that can harm bees, and buy only plants that haven’t been treated with systemic neonicotinoids. Carril pointed out that the showiest double-flowered blooms offer reduced levels of nectar and pollen.
You can build nesting boxes for bumblebees (not always successful) or simple wooden blocks drilled with holes for cavity-dwelling bees. Most usefully, keep a dry corner of your yard free of lawn, thick mulch or ground cloth. A dry-laid stone wall offers perfect nesting spaces.