Bees play an important role in nature’s scheme of things. There are some 5,000 species of bees in North America. Most of them are important only to wild plants, but several hundred pollinate cultivated crops (over 100 species, for instance, visit alfalfa).
Value of Bees
The value of those which pollinate only wild plants should not be minimized: they help to keep vital cover on millions of acres not used for farming.
Once we took pollination of our crops for granted. But it’s a different story today. In the past 50 years, under the pressures of a growing population, more and more land was put under cultivation. But the more crops we planted, the faster we destroyed the basic means for full crop return. Forests were cut down, woods and wasteland destroyed and burrows ripped up, destroying the homes of the wild bees.
Concentrated plantings of one crop overlarge acreages left the bees no wild plants to live on when the crop was not blooming; with nothing to fill in the gap in their food supply, they starved and disappeared practically overnight. And when indiscriminate spraying with powerful insecticides came along, the wild bees per acre could almost be counted on the fingers of one hand.
We simply do not have enough honeybees. Farmers in every state, according to the Department of Agriculture, could benefit by having more hives on or near their farms. Some areas need two or three times the number of hives they now have, to insure adequate pollination of the crops grown there.
This is where an increase in wild bees would be of immense help. Such an increase would bolster the efforts of hard-working domestic honeybees and show up in a direct rise in crop yields.
Wild bees have certain characteristics that make them more valuable than their domesticated cousins. They are hardier, working in cold, rainy or windy weather, when honeybees will not venture from their cozy hives. Thus, they provide good sets of seed and fruit even in bad weather. In parts of New England and eastern Canada, this is especially important to apple growers, for the weather is usually bad there during apple-blooming time.
Practically all wild bees form no colonies, in the sense that the honeybee does. The exception to this is the bumblebee who lives in a colony of some 50 to 500 individuals, with a queen and worker castes. Many new drones and queens are produced each year, but only the fertilized queens live through the winter, each one forming a new colony in the spring.
The other wild bees are solitary dwellers. Each female functions both as queen and worker. She builds her own nest, sealing her eggs in cells with honey-moistened pollen balls for the young to feed on. Once this is done, she has no further contact with her offspring.
Wild bees will nest almost anywhere. Sweat bees and mining bees construct underground burrows. Carpenter bees and leaf cutters chisel their nests in timber, or use old beetle boles. Some wild bees nest in the natural channels of hollow or pithy-stemmed plants; others take their homes in abandoned snail shells or cavities in porous rocks.
The majority, however, is soil nesting. Almost any type of soil, moist or dry, loose or packed, flat or vertical, can be their home. Alkali bees, in some areas the major pollinators alfalfa, nest in fairly sandy soil, often in “communities” of several thousand nests less than an inch apart. Seed growers, knowing that communities like these will insure pollination of their alfalfa for two miles around, protect them from disturbance. If small pieces of land are left unfarmed near the alfalfa fields, the alkali bees will also spread to them and establish new communities there in one season.
Tests by various experiment stations showed that on a cultivated plot situated next to overgrown land, wild bees were four times as numerous as on tilled plots surrounded by other tilled land. To increase your wild bees you can preserve some uncultivated or eroded land specifically for bees. Sometimes bee broods found on land that is to be tilled can be moved into these areas. On cropland, avoid working, flooding or trampling the burrows of ground-nesting bees whenever possible.
Field borders, fencerows, ditch banks, and the sides of roadways should be planted to nectar-producing plants. Kudzu and bicolor or Lespedeza cuneata make excellent bee pasturage, or use whatever is suitable for your region. Pithy-stemmed plants like elderberry, sumac and tree-of-heaven make fine nesting sites. They provide erosion protection and food and cover for other wildlife, too. Multiflora rose fences are very good, and bunch-type perennial grasses along the tops of banks are soil stabilizers as well as nesting sites.
Trees for windbreaks and stream bank protection that also provide bee food and homes include the Russian olive, American Elm, catalpa, honey locust, basswood, sycamore, wild plum, and many others. In wood lot management, make sure bee trees are not cut down.
Bee plants are often synonymous with soil-saving plants. The legumes used for green manures, orchard cover crops and in rotations provide bee food in plenty. Often a small planting of clover may be all that is necessary, with regular crop plants, to sustain a goodly population of wild bees all year. Improved pastures and grassed waterways should have some clover in their planting mixtures.
Bumblebees will nest in cans containing a handful of mattress stuffing or similar material, hung up in sheltered places in your outbuildings. Certain other species can be induced to set up housekeeping in cans with lids and entrance spouts, partially buried in well-drained soil. Some farmers break open her trees in the woods, carrying the bees home in any handy container to be set up in suitable places around their farms. When walking through your fields, you can break over the stalks of hollow-stemmed plants like canebrake, teasel, milk-thistle, and wild parsnip, to provide nesting and hibernating places.
Some species of native bees are more efficient pollinators than honeybees. Red clover blooms, having little nectar and the pollen at the bottom of a deep corolla tube, are often passed up by the honeybee; but the long-tongued bumblebee does an excellent job on them. Honeybees can steal the nectar from alfalfa blooms without “tripping” them to release the pollen. But alkali, leaf cutter and bumblebees are pollen collectors who trip every blossom they visit.
On rangelands, where it is impractical to supply honeybees for pollination, wild bees have a big responsibility to keep the range plants reproducing year after year. Every range reseeding program should include adapted legumes and other honey-producing plants to increase the wild bees, and thus improve the fodder and fertility of the range.
The honeybee is a social insect. The queen, drone and worker bees cannot live alone. All members of the honeybee colony divide labor to facilitate work, and there is never a time when the whole colony sleeps. Honeybees take rest periods throughout the day.
The single function of the drones (males) is to mate with the queen. They become sexually mature at ten to 12 days. During the afternoon, virgin queens fly to “drone congregation areas” where mating takes place. Drones die in the mating process and are not present in the colony during the winter.
The queen is the most important part of the colony for two reasons—she lays eggs to ensure the survival of the colony and controls the social order of the colony with the chemical substances she secretes. The queen is different from worker bees in that she has no wax glands, no pollen baskets on her hind legs and no modifications on her forelegs. She is also larger and her abdomen is longer and more slender.
Worker bees are female and perform all other tasks for the colony. The worker bee cleans cells, at first, and later feeds larvae. Her next duty is to guard the hive. After these tasks are completed, the worker bee begins to work in the fields. The ability of the worker bee to change from one task to another insures the survival of the colony. She lives for six weeks during the peak honey season, and six months in the winter.
There are three races of domestic (honey) bees: Carniolans, Caucasians and Italians.
Carniolan bees of the Alpine strain can be distinguished by their dark gray abdominal segments with bands of white hairs. These bees are the finest gray bees in existence and the largest of hive bees. The Alpine strain is less inclined to swarm than other bees and is extremely prolific.
Carniolans are very gentle, quiet on the combs, good breeders, and have a long life. These bees are economic consumers of stores, honest workers and winter-hardy. They build regular combs with white cappings well suited for comb honey production. They are brave in defending their hives, but gentle to humans.
Carniolan queens are darker than the workers, and drones are large and gray colored with or without visible bands.
Caucasian bees are somewhat parallel or merit a good second to the Carniolans in comb honey production. The Mountain Gray Caucasian can be compared to the Alpine Carniola except it is smaller and intensely populating. The Caucasians are more immune to American foulbrood than other standard bees.
Italian bees are most commonly used in America and enjoy a high productivity. “Pure “Italians” are three banded. Extra-yellow strains of four bands are found in the United States. The queens are yellower than the workers, and the drones are darker.
Italian bees are more reliable in their swarming habits, but are really no better or worse than other honeybees. However, these bees may rob and may be a menace. Their defense of their home is normal and they are fair in accepting new queens. In general, Italians are known for their good dispositions.