Native Bees Facing Extinction - Should We Care?

Just this week, I read an article stating that the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee had been placed on the endangered species list after a rapid decline. Previously abundant in the United States, their numbers have dwindled down to 13% of what they used to be.  This comes right on the heels of reports that seven species of bees in the state of Hawaii were added to the endangered species list. In the case of the Hawaiian bees, two of the species have decreased in numbers so much, that they are now found in only one location across the entire state. Of course, some websites will tell you not to worry, because honey bees aren't endangered. Yet. So should you be worried? And if you are, is there anything that can be done about it?

Before answer that, I need to get one thing out of the way. I have a bone to pick with the whole "save the honey bees" concept. Don't get me wrong, honey bees absolutely do need help. The work that they do every day keeps many economies alive. I love the honey bee, I have several of my own hives, and sales of honey are a key part of my business. They are amazing creatures, fascinating little engineers, and they make miracles happen inside their hives. Their honey is not only delicious, but it has medicinal value as well. Manuka honey, from New Zealand, is currently being studied for use as a topical wound treatment. And, of course, many people eat raw honey because they feel it reduces their allergy and cold symptoms. So why be a hater then, Katy? Well, it's not hate, per se, rather it is an irresistible urge to redirect the focus from the honey bee to ALL bees. And because honey bees are already getting the lion's share of attention, I choose to emphasize the (often ignored) native bees.

An alfalfa leafcutter bee, busy at work pollinating ragwort. Leafcutter bees are native to much of the United States.

An alfalfa leafcutter bee, busy at work pollinating ragwort. Leafcutter bees are native to much of the United States.

There is a second reason to focus on native bee species. Location, location, location! Many animals are found in only one specific area. Polar bears live near the Arctic circle. Orangutans are only found in Borneo and Sumatra. Kangaroos are found in Australia, New Guinea, and Tasmania. Any one of us can recognize that if you were to move all the polar bears to Australia and all of the orangutans to the Arctic that it wouldn't work out very well. Those animals aren't meant to be there - the weather is all wrong, they foods they need aren't there, and they don't have the right kind of habitat for making their homes and raising their young. Bees are no different. We have native bees that live in very specific parts of the world with requirements for life that are not the same as other bees from other areas, or even a different species in the same area. I share the same environment as a few native bees, and so it makes sense for me to focus on giving aid to my native bees. If you are from the Deep South, your native bees may be different than mine. Your actions will affect your bees more than it will affect mine. If you are in another country, or another continent, then this is even more true. This is why I say that it matters for every one of us to focus on our native bees, plants, and animal species.

Hawaii is a perfect example of what happens when humans lose sight of protecting our native species. During the height of sugar cane production in the late 1800's, rats were a nuisance for farmers. So farmers introduced the mongoose in an effort to kill the rats. What they didn't realize, was that rats are nocturnal, and mongooses hunt during the day. So the hungry and opportunistic mongooses, not having their native foods available, found something else to eat - eggs. The native ground-nesting bird populations on the islands were decimated, resulting in 8 species being added to the endangered species list. Sea turtles, also now endangered, were brought to the brink of disaster due to mongooses eating both their beach-laid eggs and their hatchlings. The islands of Kauai and Lanai never introduced the mongoose, but that doesn't mean they haven't had their share of ecosystem tampering. Just this month, during a visit to Kauai, I saw firsthand what it looks like when an introduced species gains a foothold on the islands. Every morning at sunrise, I could hear a massive number of birds squawking and chirping and creating a huge ruckus. They would fly out of the coconut palms, and be gone all day. Then, at sunset, they would return all at once. They would spend 30 minutes or more flying from one palm tree to the next, diving across the sky, and making an incredible amount of noise in the process. At first, I thought it was rather a beautiful sight. The birds, ring-necked parakeets, are bright green and well over a foot in length. At first glance, they seem to belong here - they seem so tropical. But the fact of the matter is that they are injurious to native Hawaiian wildlife, and they absolutely destroy fruit orchards (eating not just the fruit, but even the leaf buds). As beautiful as these birds are, they were never supposed to be a part of the Hawaiian ecology.

Ring-necked parakeets returning to the coconut palms to roost at sunset. These birds are an invasive species, not native to the Hawaiian islands. At sunrise they will all leave their nests at once, flying inland where they will destroy entire fields of corn and decimate fruit trees just as the fruit is about ready to go to market.

It may be too late for Hawaii in some respects. While on Kauai, we stopped in at the Kilohana Plantation, where I had the best mai tai ever. We were treated to a demonstration of a sugar cane press from long ago, the juice produced going straight into our mai tais with a vanilla simple syrup and Koloa Rum (amongst other things). We were told that the vanilla syrup is made in-house, and that the vanilla is all hand-pollinated. Why? Because it was only pollinated by one bee species on the island and it no longer exists. Much like tomatoes, peppers, and blueberries on the mainland, that vanilla was a plant that needed specialized pollination. They could have a billion honey bees, and it wouldn't do any good because it was the native bee that was specialized to pollinate the native plant. And now Hylaeus hilaris and Hylaeus kuakea, the two most critically endangered Hawaiian bees, are only found in one location. What crops will be affected when they are gone? How many bees and crops will disappear before we wake up and realize that we can't hand-pollinate everything?

Our bees and plants have a symbiotic relationship that has to be protected, or we will lose them both. It is vital to understand that everything in an ecosystem works together. If you lose one piece of the puzzle, it's not quite right. If you lose too many pieces, then it all falls apart. We are starting to see pieces going missing. First, the 7 yellow-faced bees in Hawaii. Now the rusty-patched bumblebee. Remember, honey bees don't "buzz pollinate", only our native bees do that. Without buzz pollination, we will lose the crops that rely on it -- peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, blueberries, pumpkins, etc. I don't know about you, but I really enjoy those foods and I don't want to lose them.

By now you can probably see why we should care about native bees. So what can we do about it? We can't just scream and holler and expect the world to change. Change starts small. I am doing things differently. I hope you will, too. When enough of us alter our behavior, then society will change because we are society. So here it is, three things you can personally do to make a difference.

  1. Educate yourself, and spread the word. More people making small changes means a bigger overall impact.
  2. Stop doing things that kill bees. If you just can't handle weeds in your lawn or growing in the cracks of the driveway, dig them - don't spray. Bees bring the chemical coated pollen home, killing their larvae and contaminating wax (in honey bee hives - most native bees don't produce wax). If you have a garden, don't rake up every last leaf - you are probably raking up all of next year's baby ground-nesting bees. Don't cut down every single dead stem when fall comes - many bees use those stems to hold their eggs, larvae, or cocoons until they hatch in late spring. Stop buying conventionally grown produce - the pesticides used to make it beautiful for the market kills bees.
  3. Do things that are helpful to bees. Give them native plants and non-invasive introduced plants for food, grown without pesticides. If you are local to the PacNW, you can find native and bee-friendly plant lists here, here, and here. You can also ask for help at a reputable nursery like Wight's or Skye Nursery. (Sorry, Big Box Store, you don't make the cut here.) For the especially lazy among us, just plant herbs and let your dandelions grow. You will be an insect hero. Give the bees a place to live and raise their young. For native bees, this can be as simple as leaving one small area of your yard free from mowing, raking, and clipping. You can take it a step further by providing a house and nesting materials which are designed to give bees the best possible chance of survival (available in my bee shop). Consider adding a water source. Around here, finding water isn't usually a problem, but putting a few stones into a shallow tray of water can help if it gets especially dry. Support organic farming practices by purchasing foods that are certified organic. If budget is an issue, start with replacing just one fruit or vegetable that you buy regularly, and dedicate yourself to do more when you can.
A blue orchard mason bee flying back to her nesting tube. Eggs are laid one at a time in tubes, each egg being separated by a wall of mud. By October the eggs will grow into larvae and spin cocoons. Full tubes will have 5-6 cocoons inside.

A blue orchard mason bee flying back to her nesting tube. Eggs are laid one at a time in tubes, each egg being separated by a wall of mud. By October the eggs will grow into larvae and spin cocoons. Full tubes will have 5-6 cocoons inside.

It's not too late. But we are on the verge. Make a change now, or pay for it with our future.

And yes, it is mongooses. I checked. ;p




Katy Penwell

of Milk and Honey, Lynnwood, WA 98087, USA