Photo above: Carpenter bee on a pink flower petal.
Here's the buzz on native bees: they are like people in many ways. They come in all sizes, shapes and colors. Large bees can be over an inch long, like the carpenter bee, while small bees are as small as 1/16 of an inch in length, like the tiny Perdita. Some have lots of hair, others are almost bald. Some are dazzling metallics of blue or green while others are different variations of black, yellow, white, orange and brown. Some are gentle-natured, some are fierce and impatient.
Despite the differences listed above, their body structure is mostly uniform, with two pairs of gossamer wings, a tight “waist” and mouths that bite and chew. Their branched body hairs help them collect pollen grains.
Imagine, there are about 4,000 species of native North American bees, and the California deserts are said to be home to about 750 native bee species. They belong to the insect order Hymenoptera, meaning, “membrane-winged.” Some names these native bees are known by are mason, leafcutter, digger, carpenter, plasterer and polyester. Sounds like a bunch of workers on a construction site, but they refer more to the manner of the females’ nesting techniques or other behaviors. Then others are named for their preferred habitats, like gourd, alkali and orchard bees.
This stunning video, The Beauty of Pollination by M Demir was taken from a TED Talk. At 4:23 minutes long, it will fill you with awe about the magnificence of our pollinators.
In the native bee world, most species are solitary. The female is the individual nest builder, the male lives only to reproduce. Some natives, like the alkali bee, like to be close to other bees, so they dig nest burrows near hundreds of other bees.
A solitary bee larva hatches, eats the ball of mixed pollen and nectar its mother placed in the brood chamber, and grows until it transforms into a winged adult bee during metamorphosis. These young bees grow up without adults around. The new adult emerges when it is ready, sometimes determined by environmental clues that say flowers are in bloom.
Male bees are driven to quickly mate with as many females as possible. Their lives are short, their colonies are normally annual, lasting just one season. In contrast, non-native honeybees usually have multi-year colonies. Female solitary bees don’t live a lot longer, just long enough to build nests and set the cycle for the next generation.
Some species are exclusive to certain types of flowers they prefer. Squash bees are only found on pumpkin and squash blossoms. Most native bees, though, forage on any open flower blossoms although all native bees practice flower constancy, which means in any given foraging flight they focus on just one flower species for the sake of efficient pollination.
Bees and flowering plants have a win-win symbiotic relationship. Bees pollinate flowers so they can reproduce, and flowers provide food for bees. Bees collect sugary flower nectar and pollen, which has both fat and protein, for their young. The types of flowers a bee chooses has a lot to do with the length of its tongue. Short-tongued bees enjoy flowers that open wide with flat landing pad petals like asters and sunflowers. Long-tongued bees go for orchids and lupines, since they can reach deeper into the nectar well. Tiny bees with short tongues can crawl into deeper flowers, so they have the best of both worlds.
Clever flowers use scent, color and nectar to attract pollinators, preferably bees. Their pollen easily attaches to pollinator bodies, thanks to a static charge on the bees’ hairs. Just imagine that a female bee might visit thousands of flowers on a single foraging trip. She dusts pollen from one blossom onto other blossoms as she moves along, always from the same species thanks to the flower constancy she adheres to. Ever accommodating flowers help bees to know if pollination already took place and depleted the nectar well in a variety of ways... they may fold up and close, or their petals may change color. Sometimes the bees mark the blossoms so other bees will know. There is nothing random about bee pollination, it is a well-choreographed dance between flower and bee.
What would we do without native bees? We need bees and plants. Entire ecosystems would fall apart without them. Commit to helping these amazing pollinators by reducing or eliminating pesticide usage, adding bee boxes to your garden in welcome, and working your garden with bees in mind. We really can make a difference in their lives and help ourselves at the same time.