Busy as a (Native) Bee

I think it’s safe to say that just about everyone knows and appreciates honey bees (who doesn’t love honey after all). Humans have a long history with honey bees and European settlers purposefully brought them over to the Americas. However, there’s another piece of the pollinator picture which is often overlooked and under appreciated: our many native bees.

Native Bee_opt
A native bee visiting flowers in the Allen Centennial Gardens on the UW-Madison campus, July, 2014. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch

How could they go unnoticed? A bee’s a bee, right?
Not quite—If you take the time to learn about Wisconsin’s bees, you might be surprised to discover that we have approximately 500 species of bees in Wisconsin alone. (Then there are the many flies and wasps that are often mistaken for bees, but I’ll save mimicry for another day.)  A common example of a native bee would be the metallic green “sweat bees” (Family Halictidae), although many different species exist within that family alone.

Most of our bee species are native, solitary creatures with their own unique habits.  With their solitary nature, each female makes her own nest and there’s no colony of relatives to defend (unlike honeybees).  With that said, our native bees tend to be rather docile, allowing for plenty of opportunities to observe them foraging at flowers or constructing their nests. Depending on the species, our native bees tend to nest in the ground (the females dig tunnels) or inside of hollow chambers.  These hollow chambers could be a tunnel made in wood or a hollow plant stem. Regardless of the nesting site, the story is similar: the female bees gather food (pollen and nectar) to stash away in the nests for their young. Depending on the species of native bee and the type of plants in the area, native bees can actually be more effective at pollinating than honey bees. Thus, the importance of these native bees is often overlooked and under appreciated.

A ground nesting bee (Colletes sp.) near the stump of the former President's Oak on the UW-Madison campus. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch
A ground nesting bee near the stump of the former President’s Oak on the UW-Madison campus. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch

Like honey bees, many native bees are facing declines for a number of reasons. One of the best things to do is to learn about native bees and other pollinators and to make your yard pollinator friendly by providing floral resources and nesting habitat.