Most Americans unaware of abundant bees buzzing in their backyards

Monday , May 14, 2018 - 5:00 AM4 comments

Utah might be known as the “Beehive State,” but people tend to know very little about the bees that call our area home.

For example, honeybees aren’t native to North America. Most can sting more than once. Most aren’t yellow, either — they come in a range of colors, from gunmetal grays to shiny greens to vivid blues. Most bees don’t live together in hives. They’re solitary, usually nesting in the ground.

“Everyone thinks a bee has a hive and honey and a queen,” said Joe Wilson, an ecologist and assistant professor at Utah State University. “All the stuff we know about bees is basically for one bee that isn’t from here, the honeybee.”

Wilson conducted a study last year and learned how ignorant the public tends to be about the insects. While 99 percent of the people he surveyed said bees are critical or important, few knew just how many wild bee species there are in the United States. Most guessed around 50. It’s actually closer to 4,000 and that number is growing as scientists keeping looking. 

“Every time we go out and catch bees, we find more. More kinds, more species,” Wilson said.

It’s also not necessarily true that bees are on the verge of collapse.

“It’s like saying birds are endangered. Well, which birds?” Wilson said. “Bees, as a group of 4,000 species, are not disappearing. But there are some that are more threatened than others.”

It’s true that honeybees, brought to North America around 500 years ago by European settlers, aren’t faring well. That’s not great for large farms that depend on them or for the price of honey, but Wilson said we’re not in imminent danger of losing our important pollinators. 

Wilson co-authored the book “The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees” to help readers better understand bees’ lifecycles and habits and to better identify the many species buzzing in their backyards. He spoke with the Standard-Examiner about some of the most common misconceptions about wild bees and why they matter.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The entire interview, recorded while bee-watching at the Ogden Botanical Gardens, is available on the Standard-Examiner’s science and environment podcast, “Out Standing in a Field.”

FOCUSING ON HONEYBEES CAN ACTUALLY BE HARMFUL FOR POLLINATION

The problem is if we only focus on honeybees, we can exclude some of the other (bees) that are from here that are often better pollinators, depending on what we’re trying to pollinate. Commercially, we use honeybees. If you think about a big orchard, a thousand acres of almonds, you can take honeybees in there in the spring when they bloom. When they stop blooming, you can close the box, load the bees in a truck and move them. 

But some of the native bees are better pollinators than honeybees for orchards. Studies show two native bees can do the same amount of work in an orchard as 100 honeybees. Especially in smaller orchards and backyard gardens, native bees are probably more important pollinators.

Since we’re familiar with honeybees, people will get honeybees for their backyard. One of those hives has 50,000 bees in it and those honeybees will often out-compete the native bees. They wake up earlier in the morning. Then when the native bees come out, there’s nothing left on the flowers for them to eat. So if you only focus on honeybees, you can actually be doing damage to the native bee populations.

TELLING THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A WASP AND A BEE

It’s tricky. Bees and wasps are closely related, they’re kind of cousins with each other. The main difference is bees eat pollen and nectar — they’re vegetarian. Wasps, most of them, eat meat. They’re carnivores, which includes eating other bugs.

Because bees spend most of their time with pollen and nectar, they’ve evolved different characteristics. They’re usually hairy. Hair helps them carry the pollen around. Wasps don’t have that. Wasps usually have spiky legs to carry the dead fly or caterpillar they killed. But it’s really hard to tell the difference, often, when you’re looking at them in your backyard.

DIFFERENT BEES, DIFFERENT STINGS

Honeybees’ stingers are like a harpoon. It sticks into you and when they fly away, it pulls their guts out and kills them. All the other bees are not like that, they can sting you lots of times. But they’re way more reluctant to sting you than most other things. They’re too busy.

There are some bees that live here that can’t sting you. Their stinger isn’t long enough. I’ve heard some people call them “tickle bees” because you can grab them and they will just tickle in your hand.

THE BEES YOU’LL SEE

Go sit down by some flowers and wait there. You’ll start seeing little things crawl around. You might notice a sweat bee, for example. They‘re little tiny bees, one of the most common bees in North America, and they have a habit of landing on you and drinking your sweat, probably for the minerals. They’re about ¼ inch or smaller, a shiny grayish green color, and they’ll be in everyone’s yard from downtown Ogden to the west desert. Once you start noticing there are other kinds of bees out there, a new world opens up in your backyard. You’ll also see mason bees, which are metallic blue or green. They kind of zoom around the flowers pretty fast. They’re really pretty.

HOW TO ENCOURAGE BEE DIVERSITY AT HOME

Bees need two things. They need food, which is flowers, and they need a nesting space. Most of the bees in North America nest in the ground, so we need to leave some ground for the bees. They like bare dirt in a sunny spot. A really well-manicured yard is not the best for bees. 

Leave part of your flower garden just a patch of dirt. Or instead of putting mulch or ground cloth between your flowers, leave some bare dirt. You’ll see bees start nesting there.

Plant a variety of flowers, different sizes, colors and shapes. Different flowers attract different bees.

DO BEES REALLY NEED DANDELIONS IN EARLY SPRING?

Dandelions aren’t native to North America either, so the North American wild bees did not evolve with dandelions. To say dandelions are the only or best food source in the spring is somewhat misleading because 500 years ago they were eating something else.

My advice to people is, I don’t mind if they leave their dandelions and I also don’t mind if they pull out their dandelions, as long as they’re leaving other food sources there. You don’t have to have an invasive weed. There are other options like phlox or milkvetch. There are lots of wildflowers you can plant.

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/LeiaInTheField or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen

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