We hear a lot about honeybees now, with colony collapse posing a large, ominous threat to our agricultural industry and therefore populations, but often overlooked are the wonders and benefits of native bees. Native bees are incredibly diverse, with over 4,000 known species, they also display unique behaviors and biological quirks. Wildlife photographer, Clay Bolt, has been traversing the country documenting North America’s native bee populations and has been able to witness firsthand some of the fascinating, yet, little-known life history of native bees. Listed below are nine examples of extraordinary details discovered during Bolt’s cataloging journey, along with his gorgeous photos.
Vosnesensky’s Bumble Bee’s (Bombus vosnesenskii), young queens actually incubate new eggs like a mother bird; she lays her abdomen over a clutch of eggs and is able to regulate their temperature and control the development of her young. The queens continue their unusual and intensive parenting by keeping the female young warm even after the eggs have hatched until they are ready to leave the nest and forage. She is only able to take such good care of her young by first constructing a small, wax pot filled with nectar so as to remain nourished without having to leave the nest too often.
The male Cuckoo Bee (Nomada spp.) produces a cloud of pheromones following copulations which acts as an “invisibility cloak” of sorts. He transfers this cloak to his mate and this allows her to enter her host bee species nest unnoticed. Normally an intruder would be detected upon entry into a solitary bee’s nest by its own unique chemical signature which lines the door and acts as an alarm.
The Night-flying Sweat Bee (Megalopta spp.) is one of a handful of North American bees which is active at night. They are able to navigate using the moon and the stars which gives them the unique ability to collect the nectar of night-blooming flowers, such as the evening primrose. Their enlarged ocelli help them navigate at very low light levels.
Fuzzy-legged Leafcutter Bees (Megachile melanophaea) are raised in tube-shaped nests lined with leaves. Hatching usually occurs from the entrance backward, allowing for an orderly exit. However, sometimes one youngster will sleep late, in which case, the next bee in line will nip gently at his abdomen cueing their sibling to get up and get moving!
Thistle long-horned bees (Melissodes desponsa) are solitary bees, meaning that, as opposed to hive bees, they don’t reside in colonies. With no hive to return to, many species of solitary bees will take their night rest with their mandibles clamped onto a favored bit of vegetation. Once they have chosen their plant bed and affixed themselves these bees will enter into a state of suspended animation, only awakening once the temperature has increased. This is a trait reminiscent of ancient wasp ancestors in the family Sphecidae.
In this photo A Beewolf (Philanthus gibbosus) has paralyzed Sweat Bee (Lasioglossum pilosum) and holds it beneath her abdomen to transport it back to her hive as food for her young. Many evolutionary biologists believe that bees descend from pollen-collecting wasps directly descended from predatory wasps. Bee wolves, like the one pictured here, will visit flowers in search of insect prey. The prey would often be coated in pollen when fed to young and eventually this transitioned to a diet solely made up of pollen leading to the rise of bees as we now know them.
The stingless bee (Trigona spp.) and honey bees are actually the only bees specifically reared for honey. Most bee species are solitary and therefore, do not have an enormous stockpile of food to feed their ever-growing population.
Native bees like the Southeastern Blueberry Bee (Habropoda laboriosa) actually deserve more credit for pollinating food products which we consume each day. Pollination of foods like blueberries and squash cannot be effectively completed by honey bees. The pollen of these plants is held tightly in their anther, making access very difficult for average honey bees. Specialist bees utilize a process known as buzz pollination or sonication to release this pollen. These bees unhinge their flight muscles and vibrate them at a rapid pace, this dislodges pollen and allows it to fall all over their bodies. One Southern Blueberry bee will visit over 50,000 flowers in its lifetime resulting in the production of about 6,000 blueberries!
The Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis) is a native North American bee experiencing rapid population loss; there has been an 87% decline in the last 15 years. The loss has been attributed to habitat loss, over and irresponsible pesticide use and an introduced pathogen. This bumble bee and related species have been afflicted with an internal pathogen introduced from Europe when imported bees escaped from the greenhouses where they were supposed to be pollinating tomatoes and came into contact with wild bees.
With all of the news and press about honey bee population decline, not 1 of the 4,000 native species of bees in listed federally as endangered, and so are not protected. The Rusty-Patched Bumble Bee enjoys protection by the Canadian Government, but so far, that is the only instance. Native and wild bees are responsible for far more pollination than cultivated honey bees and as so, are also critical to the success of the human population and wildlife.