Bees, wasps, and ants share a common ancestry. Some species of adult wasps will feed on nectar but they are predators that feed insects to their young for protein. Around 100-125 million years ago the ancestor of bees was a wasp that became vegetarian. Pollen is full of protein, starch, fats, and vitamins and bees feed their young a loaf of pollen mixed with nectar. The conversion to an all pollen-for-protein diet completely changed the way our flowers are pollinated. As bees evolved feathery hair and specialized body parts to carry gathered pollen, flowers responded to entice and attract bees. The interplay between evolution in flowers and bees created an immense variety of bees. Today the world is home to an estimated 30,000 species of bees! Recent scientific studies have shown that worldwide, our wild, native bees are better pollinators and we should do what we can to support our native bees.
Honey & Bumble Bees
We are familiar with the highly socialized structure of honeybees and bumblebees, but social bees make up only about 10% of the world’s bee population and honeybees make up only 7 species. Social bees have traditionally been economically important because their hives produce a near-constant source of flying adult bees. We have an ancient relationship with honey bees and they have been domesticated in Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia.
Pilgrims brought European honey bees to North America initially only for honey and beeswax production. Only after WWII did we come to view honey bees as the sole pollinator of our crops. A honey bee hive can have up to 100,000 bees! A lot of pollen and nectar is needed to feed so many eggs and larvae. Honey bees are made up of specialized worker bees with nectar-gathering and pollen-gathering workers that focus on different parts of the flower. Pollen-gathering workers wet the pollen with saliva in order to attach to pollen baskets on their hind legs
Bumblebees are native to North America and they also live social lifestyles and carry pollen in baskets on their hind legs. Bumblebee colonies are much smaller with a peak population of around 200 flying adults. Bumblebees have evolved to shake hidden pollen loose from tomato, eggplant, potato, blueberry, and cranberry flowers with a specific vibration called buzz pollination. Honey bees are simply unable to buzz pollinate and because of this bumblebees have played a key role as greenhouse pollinators of tomatoes.
HIVE-LESS SOLITARY BEES
The rest of the world’s 90% of bee species live a solitary lifestyle and around 30% of bees live in pre-existing cavities like old beetle holes, or hollow empty stems of reeds or grasses. Most hole-nesting bees are too small or not strong enough to drill new holes into wood and they cause no damage to homes. Hole-nesting bees are great candidates for managed pollinators because we can duplicate their nesting homes, raise them in one location, and place them elsewhere nearby as needed.
Hole-nesting bees that can potentially cause damage to our structures are carpenter bees. Carpenter bees are either large, strong members of the Xylocopa genus or small members of the Ceretina genus that are capable of chewing their own nesting holes in wood. These bees are great pollinators and should not be viewed as pests as it’s not their fault that they have a hard time finding a standing dead tree for nesting. We plan to design a safe home for them to use in your yard, stay tuned!
About 70% of all bee species live in burrows in the ground. Chances are, your yard is meant to be a home to a species of native, solitary, ground-nesting bee. This is one of the reasons we advocate for the avoidance of chemical use, as chemicals will wash into the ground. Ground nests can be old rodent homes (bumblebees typically nest in these) or the bees dig their own burrows in packed earth or even into sandstone walls; what strong little creatures! Solitary ground-nesting bees are not usually managed as farm pollinators because their homes can be hard to duplicate. Support these bees with bare soil or a layer of protective gravel, in a sunny spot, and leave them be as they will only actively fly as adults for four or so weeks out of the year.