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An ode to six native bees

An ode to six native bees

By Nikki McClure

Honey bees get all the glory and worry. Colony collapse. Fungal attacks. Parasitic mites. Pesticides and herbicides and neonicotinoids all make us worry about the honey bees and the food crops that we have cultivated alongside them. What will happen to the apples and the blueberries?

We forget the native bees that have been here all the time, pollinating snowberries, asters, and now all the neighborhood apple trees. They are sensitive to pesticides and parasites as well yet many are solitary nesters so disease doesn’t spread.

Native bees work. They are more effective than honey bees in pollination. Two hundred and fifty mason bees can pollinate one acre of apple trees. It would take 50,000 honey bees to do the same.

Native bees do not need to be cared for, other than preserving natural habitat. They fly in the wet and cold — they are native. They grew up here!

Native bumblebee illustration by Nikki McClure, Ampersand Magazine
Illustrated by Nikki McClure
Yellow-faced (Vosnesensky) bumble bee and western bumble bee

1. Yellow-faced (Vosnesensky) bumble bee


(Left) Big, yellow face and a yellow band near the end of its abdomen. This bumblebee you will see. It is big. You will not mistake it. But you do have to spend some time near flowers. Head to a garden. Bring a picnic. Make a day of it. Bumblebee queens are seen in early spring. They nest in the ground and form a small colony of workers and build honey pots from wax. Bumblebees will visit the same flowers every day. They may sting if the nest is bothered. But why would you want to do that? Just sit and watch them working away the day. Bumblebees are active from February to November. Plan your outing now.

2. Western bumble bee


(Top right) Large and fuzzy with a dark head and white-tipped abdomen. This bee needs our help because they’ve disappeared suddenly from the Pacific Northwest. They may have possibly been infected by parasites on bumble bees brought in to pollinate hothouse tomatoes. There is an active search for the western bumble bee. Some were spotted in Seattle back in 2013. If you see one let the Xerces Society and Bumble Bee Watch know. Remember: white bottom. Keep your eyes peeled. Tell the neighborhood kids to keep a look out.

Masked bee illustration by Nikki McClure, Ampersand Magazine
Illustrated by Nikki McClure
Masked bee

3. Masked bee


Small, hairless, shiny black abdomen with yellowface markings. They nest in hollow stems, in pre-made holes or underground. They seal the nest with a cellophane-like substance. They do not carry pollen on legs or body. Pollen is eaten with nectar and regurgitated to feed young. They look like small wasps and are usually not noticed, but I hope to stare one in the face someday.

Sweat bee illusration by Nikki McClure, Ampersand Magazine
Illustrated by Nikki McClure
Sweat bee

4. Sweat bee


Very small with shiny green heads and thorax. Striped yellow abdomen. Fond of asters. They nest underground and sometimes share the same tunnel with other sweat bees. They are tiny, about half the size of a honey bee. Most people never know they exist. Once you see one, you will see many and forevermore search out their beauty.

Mason bee illustration by Nikki McClure, Ampersand Magazine
Illustrated by Nikki McClure
Mason bee

5. Mason bee


Blueish, shiny, and stout. Mason bees nest in pre-made holes. You can make holes in wood blocks or old logs and hope a Mason bee will find it. You can watch them quite close. They won’t sting or even notice you unless you try to squish them. When the female bee crawls in the hole backwards, she is laying an egg. The hole is sealed up with mud when full, then a new hole is found and the cycle begins once more. After one month of work and all your apple trees have been pollinated, the mother bee dies. The sealed-up bees emerge in late spring, mate, and start filling up holes.

Mining bee illustration by Nikki McClure, Ampersand Magazine
Illustrated by Nikki McClure
Mining bee

6. Mining bee


Small to medium with a black abdomen. Fuzzy. Legs often coated with pollen. Mining bees nest in sandy areas near lawns or bushes. They dig a tunnel and fill little rooms with pollen upon which an egg is laid. People often freak out about these bees, thinking they are wasps. Mining bee stingers are weak and can’t penetrate human skin. Besides, they have such a short adult life span (six to eight weeks) and too much work to bother with us. Try to keep the area clear from cars and feet, and the bees will be happy.

SOURCES Bloom, E.H. and Crowder, D.W. “A Field Guide to Wild Bees and Floral Visitors in Western Washington.” Washington State University Press, 2016, in prep.; Xerces Society; Holm, Heather. “Ground-Nesting Bees — Why You Should Let These Bees Nest in Your Garden.” onnativeplantwildlifegarden.com, 2015; bumblebeewatch.org.