210611-outdoors-gardening

This bumblebee is just one of the 20,000 species of bees that have been identified throughout the world. In fact, bees can be found on every continent except Antarctica. (Photo by Linda Corwine McIntosh)

I think most people have some concerns when it comes to honey bees, and they’re usually the first insect that comes to mind when you think of pollinators, but I wonder how much you really know about bees. So I thought it would be fun to share some bee facts with you.

Would it surprise you to learn that honeybees are not native to the U.S.? They were actually imported from Europe, Africa and Asia by English colonists in 1622. The strain that was brought to the U.S. was known as the “dark bee” because they had a dark brown body.

Over time other bees were introduced because they had desirable qualities such as being more disease resistant, or were capable of producing more honey, and were more gentle and easy to handle. Most of the orange and brown honey bees that we see today are from an Italian strain (Apis mellifera iguistica).

An entomologist from Cornell University studying bees discovered honeybees actually prefer a nesting cavity well above the ground and with a small entrance hole. When you think about it, it makes sense that they would choose a location where they’re more protected from predators.

Honeybees can fly 2 to 5 miles in any direction in search of food, although they prefer to stay much closer to home when possible. I mention this because if you’re spraying a pesticide, you need to be aware of any beekeepers in the area.

Bees can emerge from their nest or hive anywhere between February to September, depending on location and species of the bee. Male bees often emerge about a week sooner than the females. Many of the females spend their first few days drinking nectar and eating pollen to help them speed up their maturation.

Most worker bees spend the last days of their lives collecting nectar, water, pollen and Propolis (plant resins used like glue to seal the hives) for the colony. This is a pretty tiring and dangerous job causing most of the foragers to only live a couple of weeks. If they are lucky enough to survive, they will go back to the hive and hopefully survive the winter.

Bees need nectar and pollen. They sip nectar from flowers and can also drink water and bring water back to the hive to clean it. Last summer, during the drought, my daughter was filling her humming bird feeder twice a day because the bees were drinking so much.

I think it’s interesting that most plants need to be pollinated to survive. It’s said that over 50% of our major crops produce more abundantly when pollinated by honey bees. In fact, 70% of our native vegetation needs pollinators. Even self-pollinated trees need pollinators to pollinate them.

Remember, insecticides, even organic pesticides are made to kill insects. Some pesticides will not harm bees, while others can be extremely toxic to them, so shop wisely. If you feel an insecticide is warranted, choose the safest product for bees.

Even then, it would be best to apply it in the early evening when the bees are going into their hives for the night because bees forage when temperatures are above 55 degrees and only fly during the daytime. There’s a new icon on pesticide labels.

When you see the little bee on the pesticide label read the label information carefully and follow the precautions!

Bees and hornets look very similar. If you’re brave enough to look closely, you may notice bees have larger, flat hairy legs (I think I could be mistaken for a bee). Bees have branched hairs that look similar to little tiny feathers.

Honeybees will die after stinging a predator so they really don’t want to sting you! A wasp is different. They will sting multiple times while releasing hormones to mark the target for its family to swarm to attack.

Here’s another fun fact: Think about the number of seeds you find on a strawberry. Every one of those seeds needed a pollinator to pollinate it. That’s why you sometimes find a strawberry that looks a little funny and has a cluster of seeds.

It all had to do with how it was pollinated.

There are approximately 946 bee species in Colorado and twenty thousand species worldwide. 4,000 of these are in North America. The native species range from small green metallic bees to large bumblebees.

Most of the native bees are solitary, meaning they don’t live in a hive or colonies like honeybees do. Out of these native bees 70% live in the ground. 30% are stem dwellers and overwinter in the stems of hollow branches. So it’s a good idea to let this type of vegetation remain in the fall.

It’s better for the bees if you do not use weed fabric in your landscape. This is because the majority of native bees nest underground. Bees and caterpillars can find a way through plants, gravel, and wood mulch (as long as it’s not too deep) but they’ll never get through a woven layer of plastic fibers.

Did you know that some flowers change color after being pollinated? Verbena is one of those.

Lantana flowers that are yellow, orange, red are not pollinated. They will turn pink or lighter colored after they’re pollinated. Because they open at different times (indeterminate) you may notice a few different colors on one flower bundle.

Flowers that allow you to actually see the pollen are good for pollinators. Hybrid roses have more flower pedals and are not as good for attracting pollinators as our native roses are.

It’s interesting that some columbine can only be pollinated by native bumblebees. This is because bumblebees have extraordinarily long tongues that enable them to feed on nectar from flowers with deep flower tubes. Speaking of bumblebees, I think they are so incredible!

The name comes from the Greek word bombos — that means a buzzing sound. I love to hear them in the garden. They are the first bees to show up in the spring and the last to leave in the fall because they are so tough. They work hard and fast and can visit more flowers per minute than a honeybee. When they visit a flower they can shake, or vibrate it, which makes the pollen fall and stick to their bodies.

We don’t get honey from them though because they use the nectar for their own use. One more quick fact, recent studies put bumble bees into a pressure chamber to simulate high elevations and found that bumble bees could theoretically fly at elevations up to 500 feet higher than Mount Everest.

That’s incredible! Take time to quietly observe one while it works. They’re amazing little guys!

We all know that bees are good for our gardens, but are our gardens also good for bees? They say neighborhoods with more backyard gardens had higher bee diversity. Planting a group of plants (such as salvia and Rocky Mountain bee plant Cleome serrulata) will help attract bees.

Just think of how much fun you’re going to have bedazzling your friends with your vast bee knowledge. If you would like to know even more about bees, I recommend the book ‘The Bees In Your Backyard’ by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril.

Linda Corwine McIntosh is an ISA-certified arborist, licensed pesticide applicator and advanced master gardener.

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