These days there is a lot of news about the decline in bees, many of which are important pollinators of our native and cultivated plants. Colony collapse disorder has devastated honeybee populations and growers can’t find enough bees to ensure the pollination of their crops.
The most likely culprit for these declines is engineered agriculturally with heavy use of pesticides (Neonicotinoids) and herbicides (Roundup ready crops) that kill adults or eliminate their plant food resources.
Although honeybees, an import from Europe, are very important — especially since they can be moved around — native bees are the more common and efficient pollinators. Unfortunately, they are also in decline. Bumble bees, polyester bees, masked bees, mining bees, cuckoo bees, metallic green sweat bees, mason bees, leafcutter bees, resin bees, wool carder bees, digger bees, long-horned bees, carpenter bees and squash bees constitute just some of our native bees. These species are not only two or three times better pollinators than honeybees, but essential to the pollination of many native plants in the fields, forests and gardens of our area. With more than 100 species in New York state, native bees are also more common than honeybees. In addition, there is evidence that honeybees may compete with native bees for nectar and pollen and, in doing so, disrupt the pollination of native species while pollinating nonnative plant species and enhancing their spread.
I’m not trying to malign the contribution made by honeybees, but maybe we would be better served to manage our lands to also protect native bees and wasps, so they are part of the mix, diversifying the pollinator pool and making it far more resilient to environmental changes.
So, how can we protect these bees? First we need to know what bees are present, what time of year they are active, and what type of habitat they need.
Mianus River Gorge has started such an inventory on its lands and will use the data collected to guide land management decisions. Since native bees don’t fly great distances, their populations can become isolated. Proper meadow management that provides flowering plants throughout the spring, summer and fall can assure them continuous food supplies. Providing vegetated corridors or pollinator pathways can allow them to move through developed habitats to reach other open lands and food sources.
We also need to protect nesting habitat. Many native bees nest underground, in cavities in dead trees, or in downed trees or debris. When landowners cut dead trees in their woods or “clean” the forest floor around their houses, they often negatively affect vital nesting habitat for our native bees. Of course people would like to avoid being stung by bees, but the vast majority of stings in our area are from colonial nesting yellow jackets and not from any of our solitary native bees.
So if we are truly concerned about preserving native and cultivated plants, remember native bees are key to their survival.
Rod Christie is executive director of Mianus River Gorge.