Native Bees and Honey Bees

A native Bumblebee
A native Bumblebee.
A European Honey Bee
A European Honey Bee.

Most people tend to group all bees into one category, usually assuming that they all make honey and they all will sting.  Not true!  There are more than 30,000 species of native bees on our planet, and the majority do not sting or produce honey.

I was stunned to learn that no honey bees are native to the North American continent!  The European honey bee was introduced to Jamestown, Virginia by the European settlers in the early 1600s.  Researchers now suspect that non-native honey bees are partly responsible for the declining populations of native bee species.  After all, a healthy honey bee hive contains about 50,000 bees, and they normally forage a radius of 3 miles from their hive, which equals more than 18,000 acres!  Our little native bees have an average forage radius of only 100 yards, or 6.5 acres.  Any wonder that they can’t compete?

Orchard Mason Bees are extremely efficient at pollinating early spring fruits and flowers, but die off by early June.  Luckily, that’s just when our native Leafcutter bees are emerging, and they remain healthy and active all through the summer to pollinate your vegetables and summer flowers.  It’s clear that, as pollinators, North American native bees (NBs) such as the Orchard Mason Bees (OMBs) and Bumblebees, do have a number of clear advantages over the European Honey Bees (HBs):

  • NBs are much more effective than honey bees at pollinating many species of flowers and vegetables. Only 250 female OMBs are required to effectively pollinate one acre of apples, a task that would require one to two honey bee colonies — each containing tens of thousands of foragers.
  • NBs are active at light levels and temperatures that are too low for honey bees to forage, resulting in longer work hours.  In a Utah orchard, over a period of five days, OMBs spent more than twice as long foraging — 33 hours compared to 15 hours by honey bees.
  • Unlike HBs, Bumblebees and several other NBs perform buzz-pollination, in which the bee grabs onto a flower’s stamen and vibrates her flight muscles, releasing a burst of pollen.  This behavior is highly beneficial for the cross-pollination of blueberries, tomatoes, cranberries, peppers and other plants.
  • The body of an OMB is much hairier than that of a HB, catching more pollen for distribution.
  • In many orchard crops, HBs are only foraging for nectar and so don’t make contact with the plant anther for pollination. OMBs always forage for both pollen and nectar, and the way they manipulate the flower to locate it results in contact with anther and stigma on almost every visit.
  • OMBs have stiff hairs on their abdomens, called their scopa, which naturally collect pollen as they travel from flower to flower.  HBs have pollen baskets on their rear legs into which they pack the pollen moistened with nectar, so it holds fast.  Since the pollen collected in the OMBs’ scopa is dry, it is more readily dislodged when they land on other flowers, increasing the chances of plant pollination.
  • Africanized HBs invade HB hives, but will not attack the nests of NBs.
  • NBs are not susceptible to the parasites that are ravaging the HBs.
  • HBs tend to fly down a tree row while NBs often zigzag between rows, ensuring cross-pollination.
  • NBs have a much shorter foraging range than HBs (300 ft. vs. 3 miles) which means they rarely leave the orchard or yard near their nest site.
  • NBs can make HBs more effective as pollinators by causing them to move more frequently between rows of male and female plants.
  • NBs work for free!  Farmers typically pay hundreds of dollars per acre for HB pollination services that could cost nothing.

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2 Responses to Native Bees and Honey Bees

  1. Judy Isaacs says:

    I have had large bees foraging on my basil plant blooms and colous blossoms. They are slimmer than carpentar bees and have some yellow markings. I’m interested in what kind of bees they are and hopefully that they are native. Judy in Arlington, VA

    • BeesAdmin says:

      Hi Judy,
      With more than 400 species of native bees in Virginia, it’s hard to pinpoint the species you’re seeing. However, your description – especially the yellow markings – makes me think that they are large Bumblebees, which are certainly native. One key to recognizing native bees, as opposed to native wasps or flies, is that the bees have fuzzier bodies, which enables them to pick up the pollen from the flowers they visit.
      Thanks for your interest!

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