Native Bees – What Hawaii and Darwin Can Teach Us!
Bees vary greatly between species and families. Those distinctions mean a lot when it comes to market farms and flower farms. Yet many farms rely on honey bees foregoing the benefits that come with more specialized bees.
One of the problems is that outside of entomology few people notice the native bees that toil away on crops. In America, honey bees are not native. They were imported from Europe with the colonists. One key difference between honey bees and a selection of other native bees is foraging. Honey bees are what we call generalist — They gather pollen and nectar from many different flowers. Some bees are very specific in the types of flowers or plants they visit. It is really that specialty that impacts both farmers and crops. In Hawaii, seven species of Hylaeus bees are not listed as endangered species. Let’s explore what that means for farmers everywhere.
Islands are very limited in resources. This is very much part of the reason why we are seeing bees on the endangered species list for the first time. Many of the Hylaeus bees are specialists. Their evolutionary track parallels that of specific plants or even a single plant. I am reminded of a story from Darwin where he comes across an orchid in the jungle and the flower has a foot-long flute. At the bottom of the flute is the nectar and he says something to the effect that somewhere in this jungle is a pollinator with a foot long tongue. He was not wrong. The orchid moth has a foot-long proboscis. The moth was discovered after Darwin’s death and aptly carries his name as Darwin’s moth. This is an example of what we call coevolution and that is very much the situation with the Hylaeus bees. In fact, most bees on Hawaii. Coevolution is a game of specifics — One or a few pollinators for a single or small group of plants.
Island Mentality and Market Farms
Think about being an organic farm as an island in the middle of civilization. Not only do you have only as much resource as your land can hold, you have to compete with resources with neighboring farms, expanding metropolises and in the case of water resources, you even compete with farms that are hundreds of miles away. The lesson that we are learning with Hawaii is that once those resources are gone, they are gone. These seven species of Hylaeus bees are a wake-up call not only for Hawaii, but for market farmers, flower farmers, and even the mono-crop farmer. Without bees business is extinct.
Bees — Beyond the Honey Bee
There is such a rich diversity of bees and that entire population of pollinators needs embracing. We focus on the honey bee but the threat to bees is far greater than just the honey bee. There are an estimated 20,000 species of bees worldwide. Just in the United States, there are an estimated 4,000 species of native bees according to the U.S. Department of Forest Services. How many of those species are also in trouble?
Flipping back to Hawaii — The Hylaeus is an example. They are as precious to the world as are Darwin’s finches. The diversity in Hawaii is unique and influenced by the isolated kingdom that is the Hawaiian archipelago. Their story is of persistence and of struggle. They must evolve to match the pace with which colonization of Hawaii takes place. Loss of habitat, changing crops, loss of native plants, and toxins are all obstacles that push these little bees towards extinction. In honey bees, we call it colony collapse. For native bees, the voice that speaks for them all is a chorus of seven small wasp-like, yellow-faced bees. To quote Karl Magnacca, – nalo meli maoli – Native bees.
For market farms and flower farms, the key is preservation. What that translates into is the use of tools such as hedgerows that help native ground dwelling bees to thrive. Most are ground-nesting bees that are solitary or at best semi-social — Small nests, not hives. For any farmer preservation of bees should be a priority. They are akin to your crop yield on the same level as water is for your crop’s growth. They help to reduce the cost of renting honey bees for pollination and many do a better job at pollinating. Again, the idea is to focus on those unique characteristics that native bees offer. A good example of this in growing alpha or hay in general are leaf cutter bees which pollinate alfalfa crops in a more efficient way than do honey bees. For orchards consider orchard mason bees.
By embracing these specialists you gain a tremendous ally and you help your farm to produce more flowers, fruit, and veg. You also play a role in helping to reduce the stress that native bees face from our growing population. Little organic farms with hedgerows are much like seed vaults. They keep the diversity of pollinators alive and growing.
A bee lover, gardener, outdoor enthusiast, etc., Clive Harris from the UK, shared his guide on how to stop bee decline. A good read with great pictures!
About: David Stillwell is an organic gardener, entomologist, writer and student. He specializes in hymenoptera – bees, wasps, and ants, and the study of cecidology – Plant galls. He has a fondness for recognizing natural circles and energy webs that exist in nature — those interconnected natural systems such as food webs. He is a native of California and an advocate for conservation, locally grown, and farmer’s markets.
Photo Credit: All photos taken by David Stillwell.