In late January, the Oakland Township Natural Areas Stewardship program hosted an overflow crowd for an evening presentation by Caleb Wilson of Oakland University on protecting our backyard pollinators. Throughout the presentation, I heard voices around me (including mine) whispering “Really? I never knew that!” So I thought I’d share a few of those “Really!” moments with all of you.
Here’s a gallery of photos. See if you can spot the differences between bees, wasps and hoverflies (the “bee-wannabes” of the title.) Then, read on to learn more about these important little insects! (Use the pause button if you need time for captions or a closer look.)
[Edit: Please note that, at our request, Caleb was kind enough to “fine tune” this piece for me shortly after it was published. My thanks to him for that help and for a great presentation!]
Caleb Wilson’s First Cool Facts about Bees
- Approximately 4,000 species of bees inhabit North America (as compared to about 3000 species of vertebrates). Michigan hosts more than 465 bee species!
- Western or European Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are not native to the U.S. They were brought here by settlers who wanted a sweetener when sugar was still a luxury .
- Bees are strict vegetarians. They eat sweet nectar and protein-rich pollen. Wasps (suborder Apocrita that aren’t ants and bees), however, are omnivorous. They primarily feed on nectar – but not pollen – and young wasps feed only on invertebrates – like other insects, insect larvae (caterpillars) or spiders – brought back to the nest by their mothers.
- Bees are excellent pollinators since their “furry” bodies distribute a lot of pollen as they move from one flower to another.
- Hover Flies (family Syrphidae) – the bee-wannabes – are the second most common pollinator after bees. They imitate bee colors and patterns for protection from predators, but actually have no stingers. Neat trick!
- Wasps are less effective as pollinators because they have much less hair on their generally thin, smooth bodies so pollen does not stick to them. Wasps benefit our gardens and other agriculture, though, by controlling insect pests.
Checking the ID of Bees, Wasps and Hover Flies
- Bees have wings which cover their petiole or “waists” (connection between their thorax and abdomen) when feeding, so their waists can be difficult to see. Wasps have tiny waists and hoverflies have thick ones.
- Bees and wasps have four wings – though the second set are hard to see since they are hooked together when flying and so they appear to have only two. Hoverflies only have two wings.
- Bees are fuzzy, whereas wasps and hoverflies generally have very little hair or none on their bodies. Most bees have a hairy back leg, though European honey bees don’t.
- Bees and wasps have eyes on the sides of their heads and longer antennae. Hoverflies have eyes on the tops of their heads (often touching) and short antennae.
- If it’s visibly carrying pollen on its legs or body, it’s some kind of bee.
Myths about Bees that Needed Correction
- “All bees make honey.” Uh, No… Most bees don’t make honey. Honey bees do, of course. And native Bumblebee queens store “nectar pots” to be eaten by their larvae as they develop – but no honey.
- “All bees sting.” Well, No, Actually. All female bees can sting; males can’t. Honey bees can only sting once because their stinger is barbed to stay in your skin (ouch!) and as the honey bee pulls away, the lower part of her abdomen tears away and she dies. Other female bees in our part of the world (for example, the bumblebee) and female wasps (the Yellow Jacket, for instance) have stingers without barbs and can sting repeatedly.
- “Bees are aggressive.” Wrong again. Bees generally sting only to protect their hive. They will generally ignore humans otherwise. Wasps, however, can be more aggressive.
- “Bees live in hives.” Mmmm…some do, some don’t. Honey bees are very social and do, of course, live in hives. Bumblebees are social, too but they nest in the ground. Sweat bees form colonies with a queen and workers, but they don’t make honey and don’t have large numbers like a honey hive. But most bees are solitary. They live in burrows that they dig in the ground, or in cavities like logs, reeds, stems of dead plants, snail shells and such. Occasionally solitary bees lay their eggs in group areas for protection, but they each care for their own young rather than having communal hives. Social wasps, like Yellow Jackets (genus Vespula or Dolichovespula), build elaborate nests but many wasps are solitary, too.
Why are Bees in Decline?
It turns out there are multiple factors:
- A significant cause is that there are just fewer flowering plants! Urbanization has brought concrete and large areas of green lawn monocultures with fewer flowers. Agriculture has replaced fields full of diverse wildflowers with huge fields of soybeans and corn which are pollinated by wind, not by bees or other pollinators.
- Insecticides like neonicotinoids and fungicides are in many treated seeds and seedlings or are sprayed on crops, killing bees as well as predatory pests and fungi.
- Parasites and pathogens that used to attack other bees have now switched to honeybees.
- Transportation throughout the year to various crops and other uses of agricultural bees can stress them. Bumblebees, for example, are often kept in large greenhouses to pollinate tomatoes. In such settings, they can develop viruses and parasites like Nosema bombi, which can then be spread to wild bees.
So Here’s How We Can Help Our Bees
- Plant more flowers – native ones, preferably! Find a native plant nursery here.
- Leave those dandelions in your yard a little longer! It’s often the only flower around in early spring and bees LOVE them!
- Plant flowers of different species that will bloom at different times of the year so that nectar and pollen are present in spring, summer and fall.
- Reduce the frequency of mowing and raise the height of your mower if you can.
- If you plant from seeds or seedlings, make an effort to determine if they have been treated with chemicals. This is not always easy to determine, especially when buying from large chain stores.
- Some bees need bare patches of ground or rotten wood. If you have an out-of-the-way bare spot on your property, bees will appreciate it.
- You might build a bee hotel to host wild bees but be careful about its design, so it cannot host mold or attract parasites. Here’s a site Caleb trusts for info on them. They also need periodic cleaning.
- Don’t buy a honey bee hive if you want to save native wild bees. Honey bees are non-native and very important to agriculture, but studies show that they can have a negative impact on wild bees. If you do decide to start bee-keeping, be sure you are fully educated by a trained professional and that you are prepared for a lot of work! Giving up on a hive can be seriously detrimental to both the honey bees and the wild bees that live near them.
- Leave wild plants somewhere on your property if possible, especially if you already have good habitat with native plants. If you have mostly non-native invasive plants or lawn, explore replacing some of these areas with native plants.
So consider befriending your helpful neighborhood pollinators and pest predators. They spend their short lives in service to the flowers, fruits and vegetables that we all enjoy. For lots more great identification photos and tips on helping bees, check out the Michigan bee website of Jason Gibbs from the Entomology Department at Michigan State University. He offers three big take-aways about bees: 1) Feed them by planting untreated flowers and seeds; 2) House them by saving their habitat, leaving some bare soil, or building bee hotels; 3) Don’t kill them – limit or avoid use of insecticides. Pretty do-able suggestions, I’d say.
Click here to view the slides from Caleb’s talk for wonderful photos, useful charts and more info!