Happy Spring Equinox

I heard a good joke today.

Noah’s wife: We lost the bees!

Noah: Bummer. Did you check the ark hives?

Meg handed me the U.S. Catholic magazine with this little gem as I walked into the Norbertine Community in Southwest Albuquerque today. A monkish community—they are not cloistered, but rather deeply engaged in ecumenical work and the needs of the community. I come here for the peace of wild things, to reflect, pray and write.

In this high desert outside the city I can see the effects of decades of drought squeezing this region. The desert is clearly encroaching. Many of the native high desert plants have turned to dust and it is looking more like the Sahara. The wind piles up the sand. When I came here 15 years ago it was still vitally green this time of Spring and full of jack rabbits, coyotes, many types of birds. Today all this is shrinking. No longer are the coyotes heard. I rarely see rabbits. A solar field hugs the buildings. A tall barbed wire fence wraps around the land which once was an open field. Development punishes the fragile land in this part of the world.

 Since working with honey bees I have become more aware of the plight of native bees. The onslaught of chemicals, drought and destruction of pollinator habitat is even more dire for them. Despite my hive losses of 50% this past year, honeybees still have humans to keep them, pay attention to them, try to save them. Evidently we’re worried about the wrong bees.

There are over 4,000 species alone of gorgeous native bees in North America, which are fast dwindling. If you ever meet a native bee researcher, they are total bee nerds— more so than me, if you can believe that. Over 500 of these super fantastic lovelies are in New Mexico alone. They are all adapted and co-evolved with specific native plants—incredibly diverse and unique. Almost all are gentle and non-stinging. When we destroy their native habitat and insert non-natives, they simply do not have the apparatus to pollinate. Also, they nest in the ground. When the dirt becomes a chemical receptacle they die.

So for all you bee geeks out there, indulge yourself with the following native bee photos, factoids and the flowers they love. Marvel at their special apparatus evolved for living in  their unique local habitat (compliments of the website featuring Clay Bolt’s photography: http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/stories/9-extraordinary-facts-about-north-americas-native-bees).

For those less beek-ish, just look at the picture to get an idea of the amazing planet we are dependent upon and seem to be destroying at a blind and breathless pace. Share this. Show your kids and grandkids.They’ll appreciate it.

bumble bee

Vosnesensky’s Bumble Bee (Bombus vosnesenskii), San Francisco, CA

1. In the spring, a new queen bumble bee incubates her eggs in a little nest of straw much like a mother bird. By placing her abdomen over the eggs she is able to control their temperature, speeding up the development of her young. Once the eggs have hatched and the larvae have emerged, she will continue to keep her daughters warm until they are old enough to leave the nest for foraging. In order to retain her sitting position eggs for as long as possible she first constructs a little wax pot filled with sweet nectar next to the nest that she can sip from so that doesn’t have to leave her young too often.

cuckoo bee

Male Cuckoo Bee (Nomada sp), Chatanooga, TN

2. After copulation, a male cuckoo bee in the genus Nomada transfers an ‘invisibility cloak’ of pheromones to his mate that allows her to slip, undetected, into the nest of her host bee species. The entrances of solitary bee nests are lined with a unique chemical signature that serves as a type of intruder detection system for unwanted visitors. However a female cuckoo bee is able to pass by without much trouble thanks to this unique gift from her mate.

sweat bee

Night-flying Sweat Bee (Megalopta sp), Kanuku Mountains, Guyana

3. Most bees fly during the day. However a few North American species (such as a sweat bee, Lasioglossum texana) are able to navigate by the light of the moon and stars, which allows them to collect pollen and nectar from nocturnally blooming plants such as the evening primrose. Nocturnal species, such as the night-flying South American sweat bee shown here, have enlarged simple eyes known as ocelli (the 3 small eyes centered between the larger compound eyes) that help them to navigate in very low levels of illumination.

leafcutter bee

Fuzzy-legged Leafcutter Bee (Megachile melanophaea), Madison, WI

4. Leafcutter bees are raised in narrow, tube-like nests that are lined with leaves by their mother. Typically, the bees hatch from the entrance (the last eggs laid) to the back of the nest so that everyone can leave in an orderly fashion. Occasionally, a young bee may ‘sleep in’ too long, blocking the exit and causing a traffic jam for the remainder of its nest mates. When this happens, the nest mate who is next in line will give her drowsy sibling a gentle nip on the end of the abdomen as a cue that it is time to wake up and get moving.

thistle long-horned bee

Thistle long-horned bee (Melissodes desponsa), sleeping on a goldenrod

5. Solitary bees, as you might guess from their name, don’t live in colonies like honey bees. Since there is no communal home to return to, many solitary species such as the thistle long-horned bee will rest at night by clamping their mandibles onto a bit of vegetation. After finding a suitable roosting site at dusk, the bee will enter in a state of suspended animation until the next morning when the sun’s warmth makes it possible for it to fly once again. This is a trait that is also still shared by some of bees’ ancient wasp ancestors in the family Sphecidae.


A Beewolf (Philanthus gibbosus) holds a Sweat Bee (Lasioglossum pilosum) beneath her abdomen before transporting it back to her nest as paralyzed, living food for her young.

6. Which came first, bees or wasps? Many evolutionary biologists believe that bees are essentially a lineage of pollen collecting wasps that are directly descended from a group of predatory wasps in the family Crabronidae. Wasps in this family –Bee Wolves, for example– often visit flowers in search of insect prey to feed their young. The captured prey is often coated in pollen when fed to the young wasps. In the beginning this served as an additional source of protein for the young wasps but over time one or more species began to feed their young a strict pollen diet. This eventually led to the rise of the insects that we now call bees. Bees feed strictly on nectar and pollen and utilize uniquely shaped hairs called scopa that allow a female bee to collect pollen for her young.

blueberry bee

Southeastern Blueberry Bee (Habropoda laboriosa)

8. Native bees deserve more credit for producing the foods that we enjoy each day. Did you know that honey bees are not always the most efficient pollinators of native North American crops such as blueberries and squash? Blueberry pollen is held tightly within the flower’s anthers, which makes it very difficult for honey bees to access it. Bumble bees and specialist species such as the Southeastern blueberry bee use a technique known as buzz pollination or sonication to release this pollen. To do this, the bees unhinge their flight muscles and vibrate them at a rapid pace, dislodging the pollen and causing it to fall from the blueberry flower onto their bodies. It has been estimated that a productive Southern Blueberry Bee will visit as many as 50,000 flowers in its lifetime, resulting in the production of somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 blueberries. Not bad for a little bee!

rusty patched bumble bee

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis). Photographed in Madison, WI

9. While there are approximately 4,000 species of native bees in North America many are in serious trouble due to a variety of factors including loss of habitat and the use of pesticides such as neonicotinoids. In many cases, pesticides don’t directly kill a pollinating bee but rather do so indirectly by affecting its ability to reproduce or store body fat, resulting in a slow death. A tragic example of a North American bee in serious decline is the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis), whose numbers have dropped 87% in the past 15 years. This beautiful bumble bee and other closely related species have been inflicted with an internal pathogen that was introduced into North America when bumble bees imported from Europe to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes escaped into the wild and came in contact with wild bees. Franklin’s bumble bee (Bombus franklini), a relative of the rusty patched bumble bee that has also been affected by this pathogen has not been seen since 2006.


Theres something life-giving you can do each day. Nature is ever regenerating and life affirming, so find ways to connect with her daily. Make sure to provide a water source with stones for bees to perch and sip!

When you’re setting up your bee-friendly garden, make sure to leave space for the bees to lay their eggs in and near the ground. If this sounds a little weird, welcome to the biggest myth you’ll have to confront as a self-appointed savior to the bees: honeybees that live in hives are not the ones we’re really worried about.

So back away from that image of a sad beekeeper with boxes and boxes of honeybee hives. Colony collapse disorder was unfortunate but not devastating. Those bees are employees in big agrobusiness, and they have jobs and caretakers all around the world. Entomologist Gwen Pearson points out that honeybees are “not remotely threatened with extinction” but thousands of lesser-known bee species are. You can see a list of our imperiled bees here; many are marked “PE” for “possibly extinct.”

A lot of these native bees live on their own, not in colonies, and they lay their eggs in little tunnels in the ground. The mother gives each baby bee a loaf of “bee bread” made of pollen and nectar. Since they don’t have a colony to protect, these bees don’t even sting.

So if you want to save the bees by planting flowers, these are the ones you should dedicate your garden to:  Xerces publishes regional gardening guides to help you figure out the best plants to buy if you prefer a DIY approach. Meanwhile, if you want to check the status of a random plant you’ve brought home from a garden store, check out the USDA’s PLANTS database. If your state is green, that means the plant is native there. Click on the “legal status” tab to see if the plant is on any federal or state noxious weed lists.

But there’s more to creating a bee-friendly habitat than just planting flowers. If you spray pesticides on or near the flowers, the bees are once again in danger, so you need to be aware of what you (or your lawn service) is spraying. Xerces would like you to sign a pollinator pledge swearing that you’ll lay off the insecticides, and that you’ll grow plants that nourish bees and other pollinators (like butterflies and their caterpillars) year-round.


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