When you think of the word “bee,” what springs to mind? If you said “sting,” “yellow and black” or “honey,” you are certainly not alone with your word associations, but you are 90 percent incorrect. Why? Because what most people associate with bees, only applies to social bees, such as honey and bumble bees. And those types of bees make up meerly 10 percent of the world’s bee population.
The other 90 percent of the world’s bees, an estimated 20,000 species, are solitary bees. This means that they live and work alone; they do not divide the labor like social bees. The female solitary bees are essentially “single moms” that find the housing, lay the eggs and provide for their young. The males live a short two weeks as adults and aren’t around to help. As for the “busy as a bee” saying, let’s give credit where credit is due: solitary female bees are the busiest and we have over 400 species of these unsung heroes in Minnesota.
The fact that solitary bees don’t have a worker bee on special assignment to defend the nest makes these bees very gentle, virtually stingless. Even if a person were to get stung, the sting is more like a mosquito bite and there are no known allergic reactions to these stings.
Solitary bees are also not just yellow and black. In fact, they exist in a rainbow of colors and sizes ranging from less than one-sixteenth of an inch to over an inch and a half.
Solitary bees do not make honey. But what they lack in honey-making skills, they make up for in pollination. In fact, they pollinate 60-150 times better than honey bees. A person might consider these bees to be “Rodney Dangerfields of the bee world;” even though they are incredible pollinators, they just get no respect.
Solitary bees’ anatomy sets them up to be amazing pollinators. They are generally hairy little critters and have a rather unsophisticated way of carrying pollen. They basically belly flop onto blossoms and cover their abdomens with dry pollen. They are a mess! As they fly to the next flower, pollen scatters everywhere.
Whereas honey bees wet the pollen so it doesn’t fly around, and pack it neatly in the pollen baskets on their legs. Honey bees are much more efficient at collecting pollen for themselves, and that’s exactly why they are less effective as pollinators.
As you probably realize, pollinators are in peril and have been making headlines. Strangely, most of the discussion has been about the famous honey bee which accounts for less than 1 percent of the world’s bee population. Solitary bees’ populations are declining rapidly too, but they are much harder to study because of their illusive nature.
As a society, we are beginning to realize that we need to think about the health of pollinators because our food supply largely relies on their pollination. To me, protecting pollinators is a common-sense form of self-preservation.
According to E.O. Wilson in “The Forgotten Pollinators,” Eighty percent of the species of our food plants worldwide, depend on pollination by animals, almost all of which are insects.
Stay tuned to my upcoming columns where I detail how to protect pollinators and how to raise bees in your own yard — no special equipment required.