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Native pollinators we should all bee talking about

by Timber Press on February 8, 2018

in Natural History

Native bees are the middle children of the bee world. Honey bees get all the press—the books, the movie deals—even though they came over from Europe with the early colonists. With more and more native bees becoming threatened and endangered, it’s time to highlight some of the many iconic native bees. Here are a few local profiles from Paige Embry, author of Our Native Bees: America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them.

The Georgia Peach

In a northern suburb of Atlanta, a golf course, of all places, plays host to a wide array of bees, including the notorious Xylocopa virginica, one of the large carpenter bees. I saw dozens of these bees one moody August day, feasting on native bee balm between the 11th and 12th holes at Rivermont Golf Course in Johns Creek. They look so innocent with their heads stuck deep in the flowers, but these bees have a bad rap. The females make nests in inconvenient places—like the wood of our houses—and the males have been known to dive-bomb people. The males can’t sting, but still, no one likes being harried by a buzzing bee. Keeping important wooden structures painted may persuade the females to find a new home, but what about those pesky males?

It’s sex that drives these guys—sex is pretty much what drive all male bees. Some other species hang out at the bee equivalent of a bar and hope a female will come by. Not Xylocopa virginica males. These guys find a territory, often near a female’s nest, and they guard it. When a strange bee enters their territory, a battle ensues with much chasing and pouncing—but these guys aren’t completely unreasonable. Sometimes males will enter into a sort of gentleman’s agreement with bees in the neighboring territory and proceed to studiously ignore each other while attacking any other bees that come too close.

Teddy Bear or Danny Zuko?

It’s amazing how one piece of information can change your opinion about someone. The U.S. and Canada have around 4,000 species of bees, and 1,600 of them live in California—many are small, black, and innocuous—but then there are the male valley carpenter bees (Xylocopa varipuncta). These males are big (about an inch long) and wear a thick coat of gold hairs. They are nothing like the female of the species, who look like assassins in their shiny black exoskeletons. Gordon Frankie of UC Berkeley calls these males “teddy bear bees,” and since they can’t sting, he uses them as in his bee petting zoo. I too saw these bees as little teddy bears until I read about their mating ritual.

Male valley carpenter bees have a mating behavior of looping flight dances, averaging 14 loops per minute, with pauses above a chosen spot where one might have sex if a female came along. And once the guys get started, they really work it. Males observed for 3.5 hours spent over 80% of their time on this display. They also secrete a floral-smelling come-hither pheromone. As soon as I read about that scent, my view changed. The Winnie-the-Pooh bee became a 1970s John Travolta, strutting through the air with hair coiffed and cologne roiling off him.

The Miner

Andrena are called mining bees, and 31 different species have been found in Maine’s wild blueberry fields. These ground-nesters might fly up to a new plot of earth loaded with pollen, and that’s when they start digging. Digging vigorously, a female will shove bits of dirt out from underneath her body as she breaks apart the larger clumps of soil with her mandibles (part of a bee’s elaborate mouthparts).

Pretty soon she will be out of sight in her hole, occasionally ejecting bits of earth from the entrance, and after about 20 minutes, she’ll fly about before zipping back into her hole to dig some more. Andrena are called mining bees for a reason—with a body-to-tunnel ratio between 1:12 and 1:15, it’s like a 6-foot-tall man digging a 72- to 90-foot tunnel. From a bee’s point of view, these are mine shafts.


Paige Embry has a BS in geology from Duke University and an MS in geology from the University of Montana. She has worked as an environmental consultant, taught horticulture and geology classes, and run a garden design and coaching business. She has written articles for Horticulture, The American Gardener, and other magazines. Visit her at paigeembry.com.


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