I used to be a respectable member of society, but now, not so much. For one thing, I carry test tubes in my pocketses (“What has it got in its pocketses?). And while some women keep little pots of makeup in their glove box, I keep little tins of dead bugs. Then too, my recent book purchase, The Natural History and Behavior of North American Beewolves, is annotated and dog-eared. Meanwhile, I keep buying bigger and bigger lenses so I can photograph smaller and smaller bees.
Although my fascination for all things bee began with honey bees, it expanded when I read papers by Cane, Morandin, O’Toole, Kearns, Greenleaf, and especially Kremen. In that way, my first love, honey bees, led to my true love, native bees. It was from these scientists that I learned the problem of pollination and food supply goes far beyond the reach of Apis mellifera.
We forget about native bees
We tend to forget that before the European honey bee came to the New World in 1622, all plants that needed bee pollination in the Americas were doing just fine—absolutely thriving. Yet these native bees are now in a world of hurt. They have many of the same problems as honey bees, but they also have a gigantic problem that honey bees don’t have: almost total neglect and disregard. People just don’t care.
We also forget that while honey bees pollinate lots of things, they don’t pollinate everything. Many plant species would disappear without their own special pollinators, and there is nothing an infinite supply of honey bees could do about it.
Beekeepers can help
Beekeepers are in a unique position to help educate others about native bees. Most importantly, they’ve lost the miasma of fear that surrounds the word “bee,” and they are willing to concede that an insect can have value. Then too, on some level they understand pollination and bee/plant interactions.
Still, most beekeepers don’t know much about other bees. For some obscure reason, it seems that the general population is more interested in wild bees than are beekeepers. I get most questions about native bees from non-beekeepers—and not, I think, because beekeepers have all the answers but because they are smitten with honey bees alone.
Recently I attended a bee event sponsored by the Olympia Beekeepers Association and The Evergreen State College. It was all about honey bees, and included displays, samples, and a screening of More than Honey. But nestled among all the honey bee tables was one about native pollinators hosted by Glen Buschmann of OlyPollinators. In my unofficial capacity as observer and question-answerer, I would say it was easily the most popular display. People were standing four and five deep to see masons, bumbles, and leafcutters and to collect pamphlets and ask questions about native bees. People loved it.
One good bee leads to another
For beekeepers, though, knowledge of native bees is useful for more than answering questions. I have found that the more I learn about native bees, the more I understand honey bees and vice versa. For example, learning about mating leks helped me to better understand drone congregation areas. Learning about larval defecation in an underground tunnel helped me understand larval defecation in a brood cell. It’s all related and it’s all the same—just different.
So once again I urge all beekeepers to look beyond your charges. It is incredibly satisfying to know a leafcutter when you see one, or a sweat bee, or even to know you’re looking at something new to you. Believe me when I say that in some way you cannot predict, it will make you a better beekeeper.