On warm, sunny days the outside world resonates with summer sounds. If walking near a birdhouse, the hungry nestlings’ chirps and tweets are easily heard. If standing close to a blooming plant, attentive ears can hear soft, almost inaudible flutters or buzzes. These low noises are made primarily by bees as they amble from flower to flower of various plants in the process of pollinating.
The well known, non-native European honeybee isn’t the only insect buzzing in your yard. Four thousand different native bee species also inhabit North America, including 500 that reside in North Carolina. Together they pollinate about one-third of foods that we eat.
In Our Native Bees (Timber Press, 2018) author Paige Embry explains the lives of bees in an understandable and witty style. Perhaps the readability of this bee book to non-scientists like me is due to her passionate interest in bees and her limited formal training in entomology. From research and visits with bee specialists, farmers, and scientists from California to Maine, she writes of her actual experience with bees of all kinds and provides pertinent facts about why bees are important.
Types of Bees
Sweat bees, blue orchard bees, bumblebees, carpenter bees, and tickle bees are a few of the types of bees described by Embry. Bees vary in size from about an inch to the length of a grain of rice. Some sting; others do not. Most bees live solitary short lives, nesting in holes in the ground, but all have a detail in their activities that makes them unique and interesting.
Large honeybee hives that can be transported to crops needing timely pollination like nuts, fruit, and berries have made them the most agriculturally important bee. Bumblebees are probably the first runner-up. Though their nests survive only one year, and they aren’t easily domesticated, bumblebees are especially important to tomato growers. Embry explains that bumblebees are large enough to “buzz pollinate,” a necessary shaking action of the tomato flower to release its pollen. Unlike honeybees that observe bad weather from inside their hives, bumblebees will continue to fly about in rain or cold collecting nectar and pollen.
Save the Bees
Despite all her research, Embry was unable to definitively answer the question of why the population numbers of bees are declining. Pesticides, predators, fungi, diseases, a decrease in natural area access, or a combination of these circumstances seem to contribute to the problem.
Embry does suggest some activities that individuals can do to save the bees. The Great Sunflower Project is a website from which people can learn more about bees and report data on the number of pollinators that appear on the plants in their yard.
For the ordinary gardener, Embry offers simple advice. “Renounce pesticides. Plant flowers the bees in your area like. Be a little slovenly in the garden; leave some old broken stems and let a little bare dirt show. The bees will come.”
Christine Thomson is a Raleigh gardener obsessed with plants. She is a volunteer at the JC Raulston Arboretum and fills her spare time reading books, especially volumes about vegetation.