by Engrid Winslow
Honey bees are not native to the United States but were imported in the 1600s by colonists from Europe. Already here when honey bees arrived were 50 species of bumblebees and over 4,400 species of native bees. Bumblebees are especially efficient at buzz pollination. (Check out this blog for more information on bumblebees: www.bbbseed.com/its-bumblebee-bonanza-time). Native bees specialize in pollinating native species of plants – including food – while honey bees are best described as generalists. Native plants evolved alongside the native bees and have a special relationship with them. Native bees do not have pollen bags on their legs but are often covered with a lot of bushy hairs on their bodies which gather and distribute pollen in a most excellent way. Also, native bees (bumblebees are the exception) live only about 6 weeks and their lives coincide with the bloom time of certain plants that they are specialists in pollinating. They are extremely docile and non-aggressive with some of them having a stinger that doesn’t even penetrate the skin. Their sting also contains a different type of toxin which will not cause anaphylaxis in people who are allergic to honey bee stings.
Alkali bees are essential for pollinating alfalfa. Alfalfa is a member of the pea family and the flowers have a lower lip which will snap closed and whack honeybees on the butt but Alkali bees have figured out how to get in and out of the flowers quickly and efficiently. Sunflower bees hatch late in the season to coincide with the bloom of sunflowers as do Long Horned bees which love asters as well as sunflowers. Mason bees are also commonly referred to as ‘orchard bees’ because they are so good at pollinating apples and stone fruits such as cherries. Sunflower bees hatch late in the season to coincide with the bloom of sunflowers as do Long Horned bees which love asters as well as sunflowers. The tiny Mining bees which nest in bare spots in lawns are the first to wake up and pollinate maples and willows which bloom in spring.
How do you know if a plant is a native? Well, if it’s a color (like bluish hybrid tea roses) or shape (lots of petals on the rose) that is unusual it is most likely a hybrid. Look for old-thyme classics like native roses (rosa woodsii or rosa glauca https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_woodsii) to support the natives in your garden.
Also remember to plant such natives as liatris, asters, sunflowers, penstemons, rabbitbrush and native bee plant. Anything with tubular flowers is always a good choice for the native bees and many of them bloom in should seasons when nothing else is available.