by Barbara Walvoord
There are more than 200 different bee species in New England, 4,000 in the U.S., and 20,000 worldwide. Their names often reflect how busy they are: You’ve got the miner bee, the carpenter bee, the digger bee, the wool cutter bee, the plasterer bee, the leaf-cutter bee, and the mason bee.
So what are our busy bees doing this time of year?
One thing they’re doing is finding flowers, which provide all their food. Honey bees and bumblebees live in colonies, so the foragers have to bring back enough food for themselves, for all the bees who perform other tasks in the hive, for the queen, who only lays eggs, for the larvae who hatch from those eggs, and for whatever humans, bears, or other thieves help themselves to the honey along the way. Once brought to the hive, the pollen has to be chewed, mixed with a bit of honey and bee secretions, stored in cells, then chewed again and fed to the larvae. Whew.
Most other bees are solitary, but they’re busy, too. They have to find (or chew) a suitable hole in a tree, a plant stem, or in the ground. Inside her hole, the female uses leaf tissue to create an individual nursery room for each baby. She lays an egg in the nursery room and piles up a stash of nectar and pollen. When the eggs hatch, the young larvae eat the food Mom left for them, turn into bees, and fly out to find more flowers.
Our bees are also doing another kind of work, without even realizing it: pollination. As a bee feeds on a flower, pollen (which is semen) clings to its body and drops off on the next plant, fertilizing it. Insect pollinators create $200 billion of increased crop yields each year. (http://www.nativebeesofnewengland.com/bee-diversity.html)
With all this work to do, bees are too busy to come after humans. Solitary bees have no hives to protect; they will sting reluctantly, only if squashed or caught in clothing. Colony bees will sting to protect the hive. Bee expert Tom Sullivan, visiting our land as a consultant, said that when a bumblebee is busy gathering food from a flower, you can actually pet it (I have not tried this).
The serious decline in bees, scientists say, is due to a number of factors, all working in synergy Here are two ways we at Lathrop could help nurture our busy bees:
1. Reduce lawns of pure turfgrass. Traditional lawns provide no food, and they force bees to fly longer distances, over the lawns, to find flowers. A new trend, as people become increasingly alarmed about the decline in pollinators, is lawns that contain some low flowering plants that can be mowed and look neat–flowers such as clover or thyme, along with the grasses. (http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/home-and-gardening/headlines/20141113-clover-comeback-bee-lawns-gaining-favor.ece). Another strategy is to maintain only small areas of manicured turfgrass, devoting other areas to a variety of native wildflowers, kept within neat borders.
2. Reduce or eliminate pesticides, which can kill bees or interfere with their functioning. A balanced view of the science: (http://www.wired.com/2015/03/pesticides-bees-complex/).