In this in-depth article, I take a look at the many threats facing pollinators in today's world. There was a time when flowering meadows and other bee-friendly habitats carpeted huge swaths of land. These days, bees must travel much further distances for food, often subsisting on just a few types of flowers, rather than the many types they often need in order to live healthy lives. But there's far more to this story than simply a loss of habitat, and the threats bees face vary depending on the type of bee. Learn more about pesticides, commercial pollination, genetic diversity, and other factors affecting bee health. Read more
Are bees in danger of extinction?
Yes, some bee species have already gone extinct, and many others are threatened with extinction. Up to 50% of all European bee species and between 1/4 and 1/3 of bumble bees worldwide are at risk of extinction. The rusty-patched bumble bee was listed under the Endangered Species Act at the end of 2016, having lost about 87% of its range compared to the late 90s. Franklin’s bumble bee, a once common sight in California and Oregon in the 50s, hasn’t been spotted since 2006.
The gorgeous bright-orange Patagonian bumble bee (so large some have affectionately called it the “flying mouse” and “flying teddy-bear”) is listed on the IUCN Red List as endangered. Seven species of Hawaiian native bees have been added to the Endangered Species List. Honey bees are not going extinct, but annual losses are increasing; beekeepers lost around 40% of their colonies between 2017-18. Many other types of bees are in serious trouble, and some are going extinct without our even noticing them 😢
Diverse bee lifestyles
There are around 25,000 known bee species worldwide (over 250 known bumble bees, and just 9 recognized honey bee species). 4,000 different types of bees call the United States their home (Australia is home to 2,000 species).
All these many kinds of bees live all sorts of different lives. Take tiny Ceratina (bees you'll find almost anywhere). These little bees nest inside dead stems such as blackberry canes. The mother bee hollows out a long tunnel in the center, forming “rooms”. In each room, she lays one egg and adds food (nectar-moistened pollen). She creates “walls” from the pithy material to separate the rooms (other bees do this too; mason bees with mud and leafcutter bees with leaves).
But Ceratina bee moms go so much further than other “solitary” bees (who leave their offspring unattended in their cells to hatch out alone the following year). Each mother bee chews through all the dividing walls she built each night, checking all her offspring are alright. She then parks herself, stinger outward, blocking the nest entrance.
And she goes further still. She cares for her offspring into adulthood, doing the foraging and providing a home. These younger bees will overwinter together with their mother, before going off on their own the following spring.
Interesting news & articles
Bumble bees are able to acquire new skills and pass them on to future generations! Watch this amazing little video showing them pulling string for a reward. Bumble bees can also learn to play ball! And would you believe that honey bees can recognize people’s faces?
How the bees you know are killing the bees you don’t An interesting discussion of the impacts of commercially-managed bumble bees and honey bees on the diversity and health of our many, often unnoticed and under-appreciated, native bees (around 4,000 species of which live in the U.S. alone).
How to really save the bees A charming article that delves into the fascinating world of our native bees, exploring their nesting habits and lifecycles, and the simple steps one can take to invite more bees into one’s garden, and support their vital ecosystem contributions.
The old man and the bee Explore the mountains of southern Oregon with Robbin Thorp, professor emeritus, on his quest for Franklin’s bumble bee. It has not been seen since 2006, and the commercial bumble bee industry (which transports non-native bumble bees and their diseases internationally) is likely to blame.
Bees learn while they sleep, and that means they might dream Recent studies indicate honey bees experience a deep sleep state that helps them retain memories and learn new things. Honey bees sleep between 6-8 hours each night, and even hold each other’s legs as they snooze.
Why do we need bees?
Bees are keystone species, meaning they’re a vital component of ecosystems. One in three bites of food we eat is thanks to bees. Think coffee, nuts, seeds, berries, fruits and vegetables (and even many of our oils). Managed honey bees are important crop pollinators (especially because they’re easily moved around), but equally important are bumble bees, which do a special thing called “buzz pollination”, without which our tomatoes, potatoes, and blueberries (among other plants) would not set nearly as much fruit.
The many native wild bees throughout our landscapes are critical too, not just for providing diversity in our pollination services, but some are specialists uniquely adapted to pollinating certain plants (squash bees, for instance). Bees are also critical pollinators of alfalfa and clover, so they’re even involved in feeding our pasture animals. Without bees, we would face an impoverished diet (lacking in vital nutrients), food chains depending on smaller animals (that eat seeds and berries) would fall apart, colorful flowering plants would disappear, and ecosystems would be in critical danger of collapse.
Curious facts about bees
Honey bees and bumble bees are social and live together, but most bees are solitary. Honey bee hives are typically tens of thousands strong, with one queen bee, a small percentage of male drones, and a majority of female worker bees. Bumble bee nests also have a queen and workers, but are much smaller (in the dozens to low hundreds). Solitary bee nests are often found together, but each nest is managed by a single female, who lays both male and female eggs.
Honey bees and bumble bees have both been around for about 30 million years, and it is likely that their bee ancestors first appeared around 130 million years ago. All bees are originally descended from wasps; at some point, some wasps discovered that pollen would make a nice protein-rich substitute for meat, and started feeding their young an exclusively vegetarian diet.
The earliest bees were most likely solitary species, and this is still true of the majority of bee species today. The earliest known social bee lived about 80 million years ago (our oldest bee specimen preserved in amber).
Honey bees have “hairy eyes” (springing from all directions of their eyes) that sense wind currents and assist in navigation. Each facet of their eyes is hexagonal too, just like their hive cells! Honey bees pack their pollen neatly on their hind legs, and live together in hives that can number 60,000 to 80,000 bees.
Other bees collect pollen in different ways. Leafcutter bees do not have pollen baskets on their hind legs, instead carrying pollen in specially developed hairs on the undersides of their abdomens. Some native bees have specially developed hairs all over their hind legs, and look as though they have wooly leg warmers (these bees often make particularly good pollinators, because the pollen falls off their hairs more easily).
Amazingly, all insect pollinators appear to have “smelly feet”, helping them figure out whether a flower has been visited recently (it’s only worth landing if there’s nectar!) They also know the “recharge times” of the specific flowers they’re visiting, so they can gauge exactly when their next nectary reward will be ready for sipping.
All the Buzz!
An occasional email newsletter from Elise Fog (bee enthusiast), including gardening advice for particular times in the bee season, as well as discussion of curious bee facts, current scientific bee research, and other such bee-related goodness.