Beyond The Honey Bee
We love honey bees. After all, they create the wax that makes our cloths possible. However, bees are an ecologically and biologically diverse group of insects. There are over 19,500 different species of bee worldwide. Only one is the iconic honey bee. There are so many bees to learn about! Did you know, 90% of bees live solitary lives and not in a hive with a colony?
Colorado has 946 bee species. The state's diverse ecosystems and habitats, ranging from the prairie, arid steppe, mountain, to alpine, allow many bees to thrive. Our bee diversity is one of the highest in the United States. Of the 946 species present in Colorado, only about eight are not native to the state. This number is expected to grow as newly introduced species in North America make their way to Colorado
The European Honey bee
Honey bees are not native to Colorado, or even to the United States. The honey bee was introduced to North America in 1622. European colonists brought them to Virginia to pollinate their crops and make honey. For the next two hundred or so years, honey bees entered ecological niches across the country, reaching Nevada in 1852. Interestingly, they are one of two domesticated bee species. The other being Apis Cerna, the Eastern Honey bee.
Honey bees are highly efficient at collecting pollen. Their flat legs with rows of tough hairs allow them to tightly pack the pollen into a corbicular pellet, instead of pollen loosely clinging to their hairs. They are polyletic, meaning they collect pollen from a wide variety of plants and don’t rely on a specific plant taxon for survival. So, they are almost limitless in what they can pollinate.
Honey bees are eusocial. Eusocial behavior encompasses 1) cooperative brood care, 2) overlapping generations in a single colony, 3) reproductive division of labor. Eusocial behavior in bees is not common. It is only found in the Apidae family and in some species of the Halictidae family.
Colorado Native Bee Species
Mining bees are named so because they dig tunnels for their nests. Each female bee digs her own cavity and provides for her own brood. At the end of each tunnel, she excavates a chamber or brood cell that she fills with a bundle of pollen and nectar, enough for one egg to grow. Once the egg is laid, the chamber is sealed. Depending on the species, a female mining bee may dig many chambers off the main tunnel.
Most mining bees are brown or black with stripes of white hairs across their abdomen. Some species are reddish, and some are even blue or green. They are a medium-sized bee, distinguished by their microscopic velvety patch between their eyes called the “facial fovea.” There are 144 different species of Mining Bee in Colorado.
The most famous members of the Megachilidae family are the Mason and Leafcutter bees. They are hole-nesters and rarely burrow underground. They like to take advantage of preexisting crannies, such as rock crevices and abandoned beetle holes. These bees usually line up their brood cells end-to-end. Each cell is individually stocked with pollen and nectar for their offspring.
The Mason bee constructs her nest using mud. They collect mud to build walls between cells. They seek out naturally occurring gaps and hollows to bring their mud to. The most common mason bee in Colorado is the Orchard Mason Bee, which pollinates fruit trees in the spring. They live their entire lives within 100 yards of their food source.
Mason bee species are frequently blue and green but can be black. In Colorado, there are 104 different species of Mason Bee.
Have you ever noticed perfectly round pieces cut out of leaves in your garden? That’s the work of a leafcutter bee. A female leafcutter bee uses her mandibles to cut the leaf and carry it back to her nest. She lines the nest with her leaves.
Leafcutter bees have long abdomens usually with black and white stripes and a furry underside. Colorado has 59 species of leafcutting bees.
The Sweat Bee
Sweat bees are mostly ground nesters. They have a wide range of social behavior. Some are entirely solitary. While others share an entrance to their separate nests. 3 species in Colorado display some level of eusocial behavior.
Sweat bees are the most colorful family of bees. Many have metallic green coloration, and black and white stripes on their lower abdomen. Some even display shades of copper or gold. They get their name because they are attracted to people’s perspiration. Colorado has 139 species in the Halictidae family.
Bumble Bees are large, fuzzy, and docile. 23 species of Bumble Bee reside in Colorado. They burrow underground and are primitively eusocial, meaning they have some solitary and eusocial behaviors. Queen bumblebees emerge in the spring from their winter-long hibernation to find an underground cavity and begin her colony. Their first eggs are female worker bees, then the colony quickly grows to over 100 individuals. As summer comes to an end, some males and new queens hatch. These fertile new queens hibernate through the winter to start the cycle all over again.
Bumble Bees are efficient pollinators. They, like the honey bee, have specialized hind legs for collecting pollen. Unlike the honey bee, they create vibrations with their flight muscles to shake pollen loose in a technique called buzz pollination or sonication. This technique is necessary for plants like tomatoes and eggplants. Bumbles bees also pollinate many Colorado plants that grow at high altitudes that other bees cannot.
Carpenter Bees closely resemble Bumblebees, except their upper abdomen is hairless. Females use their powerful mandibles to excavate tunnels in softwood. Their wood-working skills earned them the nickname “carpenter.” Carpenter Bees come in two varieties large, Xylocopini Xylocopa, and small, Ceratinini Ceratina. Small carpenter bees are much smaller and hairless. They don’t dig their nests into wood but instead nest in pithy stems such as rose and blueberry bushes.
Carpenter Bees are not effective pollinators. Carpenters have been known to use their mandibles to cut a slit at the base of a flower to drink its nectar without going near the pollen at all. Floral larceny cheats the flower of its nectar with no pollination in return for its service.
Pollinators Make the World Go Round
If you were to count all the species of bees I named off, you would notice that it’s nowhere near 946 species. That’s right! I didn’t even mention the Squash Bee or the Long-horned bees. There are so many amazing bees in Colorado. The pollination they provide is essential to the survival of our ecosystems. Bees provide pollination to one-third of our vital crops.
Honey bees can't do it all alone. Plants such as tomato, blueberries, and peppers require buzz pollination and depend on bumblebees and solitary bees for their survival. Other bees have coevolved with certain plant taxa. Blueberry bees and cactus bees are examples of bees with floral specializations. They rely on each other for survival. Domestic honey bees cannot fill these roles. Wild bees are equally essential to our ecosystem as the honey bee. Wild bee populations fell 23% between 2009 and 2013 in the continental United States.
Now that you know more about all sorts of bees, see if you can spot one of these native bees in your garden or on your next hike. Put out a shallow dish filled with rocks and water for bees to land on and take a drink. Research what plants attract native bees in your region. Small actions by everyone can have a big effect on saving our pollinators.
By Grace Poat
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