Learn more about those fuzzy and efficient workaholics: Bees
With summer birding peaking here on the Cape and Islands, I figured there was no better time to talk about…bees. Don’t worry, I’ll be back on the bird train next week. For now, please bear with me – or, I suppose, “bee” with me. Pollinators are very hip these days, and lots of folks are looking to help them.
Birds are pollinators too, of course. Some plants evolved to be pollinated by hummingbirds, mostly in the New World tropics, especially in mountains. In New England, species like cardinal flower, wild columbine, and coral honeysuckle evolved to be hummingbird pollinated - the distance between the pollen carrying anthers and the nectar reward are exactly the length of a hummingbird bill, perfectly dusting the bird’s forehead whenever they come for a drink.
Even butterflies, never known even by entomologists as important pollinators, can be economically important ones – a study of commercial cotton fields in Texas showed that butterflies and small hover flies added $120 million a year in additional pollination services beyond what bees do. All told, this study showed that 40 species of native bees, 16 flies, and 18 butterflies are involved in pollinating this important crop, though the researchers went into it thinking they would mostly just see honeybees. Wasps, beetles, flies, and even mosquitoes can be important pollinators for specific plants, and so can bats down in deserts and tropical forests.
But overall, bees, those fuzzy and efficient little workaholics, are the important pollinators. If you’ve enjoyed a blueberry recently, especially a wild one, please thank a native bee – bumblebees and small native bees like mining bees and cellophane bees are much more efficient pollinators of blueberries than non-native honeybees. Native bees are better at pollinating nightshade crops and orchard fruits as well. We have over 400 species of bees in Massachusetts and over 220 on Cape Cod. Non-native honeybees and bumblebees account for less than ten – how many others do you know?
I highly recommend paying attention to the bees visiting your yard. Just like with birding, you never know what you may find. Some tiny bees I noticed visiting male winterberry at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary last month turned out to be armored resin bees, a group never before recorded on the Cape and Islands. A quick cell phone video and an iNaturalist account was all it took to expand the known range of an entire genus of bees, such is the current potential for amateur bee study.
Want to help bees and other pollinators? You don’t have to rip out your garden and start over, just add clusters of native plants when you are updating your landscaping. Trees like willows and red maples are the most important plants for feeding bees in early spring, followed by commonly available landscaping shrubs like blueberries, chokeberries, hollies, and apples. Later in spring and summer, trees and shrubs are mostly done flowering, and your perennial garden can be helpful to bees. Keep whatever oaks, cherries, willows, and native grasses you have and consider adding more – these are the important host plants for butterfly and moth caterpillars and other leaf-munching insects. Replacing lawn with a pollinator seed mix is another great idea – a friend of mine in western MA did that this year and now has a front yard aglow with black-eyed susans and rudbeckias and alive with bees and butterflies, and he’s not looking back.
Perhaps most importantly, just say no to mosquito and tree spraying – these companies use general insecticides that kill bees and other beneficial insects, including all the caterpillars birds depend on to feed their chicks. A recent honeybee die off in Wellfleet was attributed to pesticides used by mosquito companies thanks to chemical tests by a state lab. We know this because people pay attention to honeybee die offs, but the native insects deaths generally go unrecorded.
If you want to learn more and you’re on the Vineyard, you’re in luck, as it’s the job of Matt Pelikan of Biodiversity Works to get you hooked on bees and lots of other insects. If you’re on the Cape later this month, you can spend a weekend with me geeking out about bees and other native pollinators - I’m leading a Mass Audubon Field School called, you guessed it, bees and other pollinators. It comes with a lecture, field trips, and pollinator gardening tips, and runs on August 26 and 27th- check the website or call Wellfleet Bay sanctuary for info. All the cool kids are getting into pollinators these days. So bee there, or bee square.