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  • Writer's pictureBrice Claypoole

Save the Bees!

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

A beautiful blue sweat bee (Augochlorella) on a turkey tangle frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora).

Photo by Brice Claypoole

When someone says the word “bee,” what do you think of? A swarm coming out of a ball-shaped hive hanging from a tree to chase down and sting somebody? Or maybe a peaceful honey bee working busily in its hive? These are some of the many bee stereotypes. In reality though bees don’t live in ball-shaped hanging hives, they aren’t aggressive, and there is so much more to these pollinators than just honey producing.

The western honey bee (Apis mellifera) is a species imported from Europe. These non-native honey bees often overshadow our native bees, all 4,000 of them. Environmental writer Nancy Lawson writes in The Humane Gardener, “some experts say, raising honeybees to save pollinators is like raising chickens to help birds.” When I first heard this, I was astonished, but now I understand. Western honey bees are just one species out of the thousands of different bees, just as chickens are just one of the thousands of different birds. Just as birds range from colorful parrots to tiny brown sparrows and giant albatrosses, the thousands of bee species are amazingly diverse, from the cerulean carpenter bees, as blue as blue cotton candy and furry as a teddy bear, to Nomada bees, orange striped and sleek as wasps. And I can’t leave out the orchid bees, green as jewels hovering in front of each flower before they land like a tiny hummingbird. Most of these bees do not live in a hive of honeycomb where they make honey all day. Their habits vary from nesting 15 feet underground to nesting in twigs in trees. Some live alone, others in aggregations of millions. “Honey bees are the exception rather than the rule,” write Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril, authors of The Bees In Your Backyard.

A brown-winged striped sweat bee (Agapostemon splendens) visiting the flowers of a native fleabane.

Photo by Brice Claypoole

Many bees are very industrious builders. The Bees in your Backyard tells the story of an underground nest belonging to a group of Exomalopsini bees found to be 15 feet deep! Tiny Exomalopsini bees range in size between ½ inch and 1/5 inch. This nest was home to more than 800 bees. It is thought that a nest like this is used for multiple years and generations.

An Exomalopsini photographed in Sarasota County, Florida. These bees are extremely rare in the Eastern US, though can be common in some parts of the west.

Photo by Brice Claypoole

Leafcutter bees are a common native bee throughout the US whose nests aren’t quite so ambitious, but still a lot of work. Female leafcutter bees cut pieces out of leaves, leaving a distinctive mark that betrays their presence even if you don’t see the bees themselves. Some of their favorites in Florida are Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), creeping beggarweed (Desmodium incanum), and cocoplum (Chrysobalanus icaco). They do not take enough to harm the plant. Once they have a piece of leaf, they roll it up and fly with it back to their nest. The leafcutter’s nest is a hole, either in the ground or, more commonly, in wood like a stick, pipes, and other tubular objects. The cut leaf is shoved into the nest and an egg is laid in it.

I have spent months chasing leafcutter bees and only a few times have I found their obscure nests, but there is one bee that depends on finding these well-hidden holes. These are the cuckoo leaf-cutter bees, also called sharptails (Coelioxys species). These kleptoparasites, in the same family as true leafcutter bees, lay their eggs in leafcutter bee nests. The resulting larva eats the pollen loaf the leafcutter bee placed in the nest for its own larva. A healthy population of sharptails is a sign of a healthy population of leafcutter bees.

A leafcutter bee cutting a creeping beggarweed leaf.

Leafcutter bee evidence on a cocoplum leaf.

A mother hoary leafcutter (Megachile pruina) entering her nest with a leaf roll.

Leafcutter bee photos by Brice Claypoole

A Slosson's cuckoo leaf-cutter bee (Coelioxys slossoni). Slosson's cuckoo leaf-cutter bees remind me of vampires (note that they do not drink blood, just flower nectar) with their red and black patterning and “sharp” tail, hence the name “sharptail”. This sharp tail is not a stinger, but enables the bee to cut open a leafcutter bee’s leaf roll and lay its egg inside.

Photo by Brice Claypoole

Sharptails aren’t the only cuckoo bees. Many bees take advantage of the hard work of others solitary bees in this way. One bee takes it to the extreme, acting as a kleptoparasite on a whole hive. Which bee is this, you ask? It is an unexpected one: a bumble bee! Of course, most bumble bees just go about sweetly making their hive, but one subgenus has a much more sinister lifestyle. These cuckoo bumble bees are the Psithyrus (pronounced sith-er-us).

The female Psithyrus creeps into a nest of normal bumble bees and finds her way to the queen. Once the Psithyrus has found the queen, she stings, subdues, or assassinates her. Once the queen is dead or subdued, the Psithyrus will take over the hive. The worker bees may protest, but the Psithyrus soon puts them in their place using both pheromones and attacks that frighten the workers into giving up their potential mutiny. The Psithyrus, now the queen, takes over egg laying duties, so the hive of enslaved bees raises cuckoo bumble bees instead of normal bumble bees.

Euglossa dilemma is an odd bee. Their common name is the green or dilemma orchid bee. Why are they called “dilemma”? I can’t find any reason! Wherever their name comes from, they sure are beautiful. They are an iridescent blue-green color that makes them easy to spot. According to The Bees In Your Backyard, “The name Euglossa means “well-tongued,” referring to the extraordinarily long tongue of these bees.” An orchid bee’s tongue is as long as its body!

Female orchid bees sometimes nest with their sisters or even daughters. Instead of leaving their eggs behind with a ball of pollen, orchid bees provide their larva with food as they grow. These two facts indicate that orchid bees have a sort of family structure. Once an orchid bee emerges from its nest cell, it joins its mother in caring for the babies.

A dilemma orchid bee. Orchid bees were introduced to Florida in 2003 from Mexico.

Photo by Brice Claypoole

A group of orchid bees visiting a squash blossom.

Photo by Ali Claypoole

A dilemma orchid bee showing the tongue that gives it the Latin name Euglossa, or well-tongued.

Photo by Brice Claypoole

Most people don’t know these native and orchid bees exist. These bees are just as important as western honey bees, which is why the huge decline in them is so alarming. At least one species of mason bee (Osmia) is more efficient than Western honey bees at pollinating apples, almonds, plums, and cherries. According to Joseph Wilson and Olivia Carril, a pollination job that takes less than 300 mason bees to complete would take over 90,000 honey bees.

These products are all made possible by bee pollination. Can you imagine a world without them?

Photos by Brice Claypoole

Bees are responsible for up to two thirds of the plant food we eat, and the feed for meat products such as cows and chickens. The issue of bee population decline should really concern people right up to the top government officials because it will soon lead to a food crisis if nothing is done to stop it.

You can be a part of the solution! Here is a list of five important things you can do to save the bees:

1. Avoid using pesticides in your yard. They kill all insects that come in contact with them including bees.

2. Plant native! Native plants that have co-evolved with native pollinators for centuries provide bees with much more sustenance than non-natives. Visit your local native nursery for a great pollinator selection. This is one of the key steps in supporting pollinators.

3. Leave dead stalks standing when possible as bees will lay their eggs in them and roost on them.

4. Take pictures of the bees you see and post them to citizen science apps like iNaturalist. The data collected there helps scientists study bees and discover new ways to help them.

5. Spread the word about native bees and their plight! From the tiny Perdita to the giant Xylocopa, they all need our help!

Three Slosson’s cuckoo leaf-cutter bees roosting on a dead plant stem.

Photo by Brice Claypoole

One of the smallest bees, a Perdita. Perdita minima is the smallest in North America, at only 2 mm long!

Photo by Brice Claypoole

Top: A friendly long-horned bee (Melissodes) perched on my finger in front of the message he wants you to see. Bottom: The Melissodes’ roost-mate, a cuckoo leaf-cutter bee has the same message.

Photo by Brice Claypoole. Stars of the photos: a couple of very sleepy bees who are a bit disgruntled, but still bravely posed for the pictures!

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Excellent article. I learned a lot. Fantastic photos

Rochelle Claypoole

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