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By now, you probably know that bees are important, particularly because they are so vital to producing many of our most important foods. You’ve likely heard the slogan “save the bees,” and the unfortunate news that these industrious insects aren’t doing so great these days. However, unless you’re a certified bee nerd like me, there is a good chance that you might be unaware of a few common misconceptions about them.
In celebration of National Pollinator Week, please allow me to dispel five of the most repeated bee myths out there, while broadening your appreciation for these remarkable insects.
1. One of a Kind: Although honey is delicious, and while the European or western honey bee (Apis meliferra) is undoubtedly the most famous species of bee in the world, it is one of only over 20,000 known bee species on the planet. Honey bees are non-native insects that were introduced into North America during the 1600s like cows, chickens (1400s), and other domesticated species. Despite what you may have heard, honey bees aren’t likely to go extinct anytime soon (imagine chickens going extinct), so raising honey bees in your backyard, however well-intentioned, may do more harm than good since they horde resources that would normally feed native bees. In fact, as a domesticated species, honey bee numbers are on the rise. However, many of North America’s 4,000 native bee species in decline due to an abundance of pesticides, habitat loss, and climate change.
2. Armed and Deadly: Bees are as famous for their stings as they are for their pollination services, but did you know that most bees are too small to sting you and that most will avoid doing so whenever possible? Once again, honey bees have unfairly colored our understanding of our pollinating friends (a developing theme for this article), as they are generally some of the most aggressive bees and the only bees that will famously leave their stingers in your skin after contact. Ninety percent of the world’s 20,000 species of bees, however, are solitary, which means that rather than have a large hive or colony to defend, most bees you encounter are hardworking, single moms. If these solitary bees die in the act of trying to sting you, there will be no one else to collect pollen and nectar for her young. Perhaps you’ll also be surprised to hear that since stingers are nothing more than a modified version of an insect’s ovipositor, or egg-laying structure, only female bees can sting. Bonus content: Today I learned that there is a Brazilian beetle that can sting with its antennae. Mind-blown.
3. Hunger Pains: If bees were to go extinct, would we run out of food? The answer is, “not exactly, or at least not right away.” The truth is while bees help produce many of our favorite foods like delicious fruits and veggies like squash or tomatoes (technically a berry), many crops like corn and wheat are primarily wind- or self-pollinated. So, we would have food, but our diets would certainly be much poorer. However, if bees were to suddenly go extinct there would be a cascading effect that could negatively impact ecosystems on every continent except for Antarctica (the only continent where bees don’t exist). Without bees, which are collectively the world’s most important pollinators, many flowering plants would likely go extinct, leading to erosion, loss of water (that is otherwise pulled into the soil by wildflower roots), and more carbon being released in the atmosphere.
4. Queen Bees No More: Without a doubt, honey bees (yes, here we go again) are great pollinators, but they are no means the best pollinators. While it is true that we rely heavily on honey bees to pollinate many crops it is primarily because we grow crops like almonds in massive monocultures that provide little to no food for native pollinators during most times of the year. According to Cornell entomologist Bryan Danforth, "An individual visit by a native bee is actually worth far more than an individual visit by a honeybee." This is because, "honey bees are more interested in the nectar [for producing honey]. They don't really want the pollen if they can avoid it.” In fact, research has shown that not only do honey bees do a better job of pollination when native bees are present, but bees other than honey bees are often much more efficient pollinators. Bumble bees, for example, can unhinge their wings from their flight muscles and vibrate their bodies at a middle-C, causing pollen to fall from tomato and blueberry flowers. This is a special technique called sonication, or buzz-pollination, which only bumble bees and a few other bee species can do.
5. Bees are Cool, M’kay?: So, yeah, my last point doesn’t really have anything to do with a myth, but in case I haven’t sold you on just how cool the world’s native bees are, here are a few of my favorite facts: There are bees that fly at night, using specialized eyes that allow them to navigate with moonlight; Bees are actually vegetarian wasps, that exchanged insect protein for pollen protein, millions of years ago; There is a bee in South Africa with extra-long front legs that allows it to reach special floral oils and another in Chile’s Atacama Desert with an elongated snout for the same reason; The smallest bee is much smaller than a grain of rice, and the largest bee is as large as an average woman’s thumb; In the US’ desert southwest, which has some of the highest levels of bee diversity in the world, there are bees that remain in the ground a state of torpor for several years until rains fall causing the flowers the bees feed upon to burst from the earth; There are honey producing bees in many parts of the world, including Mexico, Central and South America, and Australia that are stingless; and bumble bees are highly intelligent and have even been trained to play soccer for a reward.
If you’d like to help native bees and other pollinators in your community, there are several easy ways to get involved. First plant a range of wildflowers that are native your part of the world and ideally a selection of plants that will bloom from spring through early fall. Next, avoid using pesticides and fungicides in your garden at all costs. If you must control garden pesticides, select organic or biological treatments. And finally, make space for bees to nest by naturalizing a corner of your yard by allow leaves to collect, adding a bee hotel, or a mossy log.
Clay Bolt is the Manager of Pollinator Conservation for WWF-US.