Creature Feature: The Buzz About Bees

 Honeybee collecting nectar. 

Honeybee collecting nectar. 

Step outside into your vegetable patch or flower garden this time of year and you’ll hopefully see honeybees or bumblebees buzzing about. Bees are one of the reasons we can eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and they play an essential part of our food system. In the United States alone, bees provide pollination services valued at billions of dollars. Blueberries, strawberries, apples, pumpkins, and many other local crops depend on these species.

With over 20,000 species of bees worldwide, and an estimated 250 species in NH, bees are among the most important pollinators on earth. Think “pollinator” and the honeybee (Apis mellifera) may be the first thing that comes to mind. A multitude of species including bumblebees, carpenter bees, and honey bees and bumblebees help pollinate crops in our local farms. Over the past decade pollinators, and bees in particular, have been disappearing at a worrisome rate.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) strikes fear into the heart of every beekeeper. Go to bed one night and your bees are fine, wake up the next morning and all of your adults bees are suddenly dead or have disappeared, leaving behind a lone queen.

Biologists are still unsure why CCD happens, however research points to stressors including pesticide use, habitat loss, and harmful pathogens. Hit with a single stressor, a hive can usually rebound.  When a colony is faced with a combination of them, they are often unable to survive.

 The tri-colored bumblebee.

The tri-colored bumblebee.

Sit for a while in your garden, and you may see a variety of bumblebees, like the tri-colored bumblebee (Bombus ternarius), American bumblebee (Bombus pensylvanicus), and common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens). Often overlooked, are solitary carpenter bees, mason bees and sweat bees that are all found in our region of NH.

Both social and solitary bees live in NH. At the heart of every social bee colony is a queen bee who ensures the continuation of her hive. Honeybees are social, building organized honeycomb nests and a single colony may include thousands of workers and drones. Solitary bees, like the mason and sweat bees live by themselves and prefer nesting in sandy ground or even decaying logs. Bumblebee colonies are smaller, ranging from 50-400 bees and also tend to form nests in the ground.

 A honey bee hive.

A honey bee hive.

 A bumblebee ground nest. 

A bumblebee ground nest. 

With honeybee colonies dying off and disappearing across the country, scientists have been studying hives to see what stressors are weakening or killing bees. Documented stressors include pesticides, harmful pathogens, and pests such as hive beetles that can wreak havoc in colonies. Loss of land that was once home to wildflowers, either to development or to row crops – and the pesticides that many farmers use – has also hurt bees, as they are forced to fly longer distances for subpar pollen and nectar yields.

 Hunkering down for the long winter.

Hunkering down for the long winter.

Here in the North Country where winters can last for six months, it’s especially tough on our bees. During the winter honeybees surround their queen forming a dense warm ball to keep her alive until spring. Bees eat their honey stores during the winter, but if a freezing winter drags on and reserves are drained before spring the colony’s survival becomes tenuous.

NH’s bees face many challenges as they pollinate our vegetables, fruits, and flowers year after year. The next time you’re harvesting vegetables for dinner, or picking up your CSA share consider for a moment the small, but mighty pollinator that made it all possible. From CCD to frigid winters, and creeping habitat loss it may seem the deck is stacked against bees, but the good news is there are steps you can take to help.

What can you do to attract honeybees and bumblebees to your own backyard?

1.) Start a native wildflower garden, and plant it so your have a diversity of flowers that bloom at different times throughout the summer. This gives bees a reliable foraging ground and provides them with excellent pollen and nectar diversity. The Pollinator Partnership nonprofit provides an extensive wildflower plant guide with flowering times for New England.

2.) If you use pesticides or insecticides consider eliminating them entirely, or only applying them in the late afternoon when bees are less likely to go on pollen runs. Bees are gentle creatures, unlikely to sting unless provoked. Think of all the beautiful flowers and vegetables you and your neighbors are able to enjoy because of their presence.

3.) Get information from credible sources, like The Pollinator Partnership, Xerces Society, The Bee Informed Partnership, and UNH Cooperative Extension.