Bee Lessons: Reflections on the May 31st Pollination Event (Part II)

For part one of the coverage of the May 31st event, see here.

So, honeybee management is a global endeavor, but this makes perfect sense when you realize that for the United States, the honeybee itself is a product of globalization. The bees we commonly think of – those whose hives beekeepers manage and who pollinate a large percentage of our crops – are European honeybees, a non-native species. In many ways, honeybees are a domesticated species, a tool in the landscape of a farm. But the Americas do have their own native bees, and they just happen to be Matthew Shepard’s area of focus.

Shepard began his work for the Xerces Society by visiting golf courses in Eastern Washington and advising them on how to protect native bee habitat in the rough. Most of his job involved educating course managers about the bees they didn’t even realize they had, the obstacle being that most people don’t know very much about the great diversity of bees. According to Shepard, there are over 4,000 species of native bees in the United States, the vast majority of which don’t resemble the common image of a bumblebee or honeybee. In ten minutes spent strolling the Boutard’s farm, Shepard readily collected five different types of native bees. He passed them around in little vials and their differences were amazing – some bees resembled large, iridescent houseflies, while others looked more like wasps the size of a rice grain.

With this diversity of varieties comes a wide range of behaviors and preferred habitats. Shepard explained that in contrast to our common image of hive-dwelling colonies, most native bees are solitary. When nesting, females will dig narrow tunnels in the ground or exploit natural holes in trees and snags, into which they will lay a line of eggs. When the bees emerge, they immediately mate before going their separate ways. As a result of this solitary instinct, managing farmland for wild bees requires a very different set of considerations than does employing honeybee hives for pollination. Farmers must actively protect forestlands on their property and allow for uncultivated patches of flora between the rows of crops and in between fields. Farmers like the Boutards have even gone the extra step of building “bee boxes” and integrating them throughout their land to encourage native bees within their fields.

Sometimes protecting bee habitat just takes an adjustment in aestheticsSo what is the payoff, as one attendee asked, for a farmer to take these measures and manage for native bees? Anthony Boutard offered his reasons: aesthetics, entertainment, and insurance. When pressed on the matter of aesthetics, he explained that he simply thought bees were neat (after all, he said, he raised his daughter to be an entomologist). As for entertainment, Boutard reminded the attendees that as a farmer, he spends 10 to 12 hours a day out in his fields; busily working bees offer something new to occupy his interest. Boutard was careful not to delve too much into the economics of his efforts to encourage native bees, but rather chalked it up as back-up for his honeybee program. Shepard interjected that native bees should not be considered of insignificant value: while honeybees contribute an estimated $15.9 billion of crop value annually, native bees have an effect of $3 billon, which is no trivial sum. He pointed to certain watermelon crops (a pollination-intensive fruit) in California that rely exclusively on native bees.

These native bees are essentially all around us – they are a valuable local resource. While it may take some extra effort to protect and encourage them, it is important work to be done. After spending a day around bees on a working farm, it was clear that the issues confronting both honeybees and native bees are many and complex. Accordingly, they require a nuanced response. “Farming is a violent activity,” Boutard reminded, “even as a good-hearted organic farmer.” Working to develop a more robust native bee population and responsibly managing honeybee colonies can offer a respite from all of the digging and tilling and harvesting. And this work does not just benefit the bees, but improves the entire farm. As Boutard put it, “whenever you’re paying attention to something that you’re not selling, it makes you a better farmer.”

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If you would like more information on native bees and their habits, please visit the Xerces Society website. We have also gone ahead and attached the handouts that Matthew provided at the event:

Xerces Society – Pacific Northwest Plants for Native Bees (.pdf)

Xerces Society – Nests for Native Bees

-Amanda and Patrick

Thanks for sharing