Don't Forget the Natives

Welcome to the FRB blog, where every month we explore the world of honeybees! Today we are going to discuss native bees; how they are different from honeybees, what they do, and how they interact with honeybees.

A Colorado native sweat bee

Many people are unaware that bees besides the honeybee even exist. Those that do know are familiar with perhaps one or two other species, like the bumblebee or the carpenter bee. However, each of these designations covers many species of bee! For example, there are actually eight species of honeybee! The one we come into contact with most often in the United States, and the species FRB uses, is known as the Western Honeybee (Apis mellifera), but the other species are more abundant in other parts of the world. In total there are more than 20,000 species of bee in the world, with 4000 of those indigenous to the United States and 946 species native to Colorado!

Native bees are physically very different from honeybees. For starters, most bee species, and all of the Colorado native species, don’t live in hives. Bees are usually solitary animals, performing their pollination duties for their own food and survival rather than for that of a colony. These solitary bees are very rarely equipped with a stinger like honeybees, and so must rely on other unique adaptations to help them survive. While honeybees build large and visible but defendable hives, solitary bees rely on seclusion to be safe. Good examples of this are the carpenter and mining bees, who make their homes in difficult to reach places. Carpenter bees are capable of digging their way into trees and wooden structures in order to have a warm, safe habitat. Mining bees do the same, but nest underground! Other bee species, like leaf cutting bees, construct their small homes out of debris and plant materials much like birds make nests. The ways bees have found to keep themselves safe is nearly endless!

These differences make native bees incredibly important to their local ecosystems. These bee species have evolved alongside the flora of their ecosystems, creating relationships with them that allow for efficient, and sometimes even exclusive, pollination. Native bees are required to pollinate some plants that can’t be pollinated by any other creatures, and this is why they are known as niche pollinators. Honeybees are generalist pollinators, which means they pollinate a little bit of everything, but also means they are incapable of pollinating any specialized flowers. Both niche and generalized pollinators are crucial for a healthy ecosystem, ensuring that all plants get the pollination they need!

Unfortunately, native bees are struggling from many of the same problems that honeybees are; climate change, insecticides and loss of forage chief among them. These systemic problems are causing bee species to die in massive numbers, sending some of them to extinction. Because they are solitary, there is no way to keep most bee species like we do honeybees so the amount of direct influence we can have on bolstering their population is limited. Native bees also face a unique threat; outcompetition.

Commercial beekeeping operation with hundreds of hives in one location

In recent years it has been found that massive agricultural and commercial beekeeping operations are having detrimental effects on the surrounding environments, including the native bees. This is not entirely surprising, as these operations will have hundreds to thousands of hives, each with 50,000 honeybees in them. This system is bad for everyone, including the honeybees, except the farmers who need the massive pollination efforts of the bees. Unfortunately these findings have led many people to believe that honeybees are bad for the environment, but this is a harmful view. Just like cattle, a small number of these animals is good for the environment in a myriad of ways but when you seriously overpopulate an area it becomes detrimental. We will explore this topic more in the future, but it is important to remember that honeybees are just generalist pollinators, and ecosystems thrive with the appropriate amount of such creatures in it.

To learn more about honeybees, their native counterparts and what you can do to help bees and the environment in Colorado check out the Free Range Beehives home page or reach out to us using the links at the bottom of the page.

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