Audubon Adventures

native bees

The next time you drink a refreshing glass of orange juice or bite into a sweet slice of watermelon, be sure to thank bees. And when you see a beautiful flower, you can thank bees for that, too. That’s right. If bees didn’t do such an excellent job of pollinating fruit trees, vegetable plants, and flowers, we wouldn’t have so many yummy foods and pretty blossoms to enjoy.

longhorn beeWhat is pollination? It’s the process of transferring pollen—small yellow grains produced by flowering plants—from one flower or part of a flower to another. This transfer of pollen makes it possible for plants to produce seeds, and seeds make it possible for new plants to grow. Some plants produce seeds inside fruits, like apples, peaches, oranges, and watermelons. Some plants produce seeds inside vegetables, like beans, squash, and cucumbers. Some plants produce seeds inside nuts, like pecans, walnuts, and almonds. And other plants produce seeds in their flowers, like carrots, broccoli, sunflowers, and roses. Without pollination, flowering plants could not produce seeds, and pollination is something native bees do very well.

Although pollination is very important for people and for plants, it’s not what bees set out to do as they fly from flower to flower. What they’re really doing is collecting pollen and the sweet liquid nectar inside flowers to feed themselves and their young. As they do this, pollen sticks to their hairy bodies and gets carried to other flowers they visit. Everybody wins! Pollination makes it possible for the plants to reproduce, bees get the food they need, and people and wildlife get many delicious and beautiful rewards, too, in the form of plants, fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and flowers.

Here’s something else that might surprise you: Most of the bees in North America don’t live in hives or make honey. The bees that do that are honey bees. Honey bees were introduced to this continent by Europeans who arrived in the 1600s. Today, professional beekeepers raise honey bees in human-made hives. They make money by collecting and selling the honey, and also by renting their hives out to help pollinate some crops. But chances are the bees you see in your neighborhood aren’t honey bees; they’re native bees. Those are the bees that evolved right here along with other native animals and native plants to form a healthy ecosystem.

There are more than 4,000 species of native bees in North America. Most of them don’t live in large groups the way honey bees do. Instead, they live solitary lives going about the business of being bees and pollinating plants. And because of that, we all have plenty of reasons to say, “Thank you, bees!”

Can bees lay their eggs underground? Are bees vegetarians? You’ll find the answers and a lot more fascinating information in the student magazine, The Buzz About Native Bees, in the column on the right. Just click on it to open it.

Photos: (top to bottom) Dan Mullen; Clay Bolt (2).