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There's more to bees than honey and stings - September 4, 2013

Although many people are allergic to them, are afraid of them, or just plain do not like them, bees are a crucial part of our ecosystem — not just locally but globally. When you ask someone what they know about bees, the answers are usually the same: they can sting you but then they will die; they make honey; they live in big beehives in trees or shrubs; and they have a queen bee who rules the hive.

All these general facts are true about most bees. However, there is so much more behind these fuzzy, buzzing little insects than just honey and stinging.

Bees are distinct from wasps, yellow jackets or hornets. While it may be difficult to identify these insects when they are buzzing around you, if you caught one and looked closely you could see the myriad of differences.

Firstly is the body shape, bees tend to be fatter, rounder and more squat compared to wasps, yellow jackets and hornets, which tend to be slender and slimmer around the waist, the area between the thorax and abdomen. After looking at the body shape, you should look at the body covering. Bees tend to be “furry” and have lots of small hairs on their body to help collect the pollen they need to survive.

Wasps, yellow jackets and hornets tend to be sleek and hairless because they are predators, eating insects, caterpillars and other small insects, so they do not need the body hair to collect pollen.

Apart from morphological differences, bees and their more painful cousins can be separated based on aggressiveness. Bees generally are less aggressive than their kin, only using their stingers to ward of predators close to their hive. This is because they are not predators; most bees die if they use their stinger, so it is counter-intuitive to attack something that is not threatening their hive.

This is different from wasps, yellow jackets and hornets, which tend to be very aggressive and will not hesitate to sting regardless of distance from the colony. But why does it matter what the differences are? Why care about bees more than their other stinging kin?

Just try to imagine a world without bees. It is hard for many to think that the loss of one small insect would cause much damage but just by the numbers alone, anyone can see just how important bees really are to us.

Each year, honey bees alone contribute over $15 billion to the value of U.S. crop production. As bees gather pollen and nectar for their survival, they pollinate a multitude of crops: apples, lemons, limes, oranges, broccoli, onions, blueberries, cranberries, cherries, cucumbers, cantaloupes, carrots, avocados, almonds and more. Certain crops, including blueberries and cherries, are 90-percent dependent on honey bee pollination. Almonds are 100-percent dependent on honey bees for pollination; in fact, California almond growers import almost 50 percent of the U.S. honey bee population just to pollinate this one crop, estimated to be worth upwards of $2.3 billion annually.

Since 1990, we have lost nearly half of our honey bee population and more than half of our entire bee population country wide. Apart from putting countless wild plant and crop species at risk of extinction due to a loss of pollinators, the global economic cost of bee decline has been estimated at nearly $5.7 billion per year.

Colony Collapse Disorder, where seemingly healthy bees abandon their own hives en masse for no apparent reason, is a recent discovery, yet scientists believe that nearly one third of all honey bee hives in the U.S. have vanished because of it. While these numbers can be large and intimidating, there are things we can do as individuals to help keep bees and other pollinators alive and contributing to our local and global ecosystems.

There are a few simple things that any homeowner can do to help protect and encourage the population of bees and other pollinating insects. Let branches and fallen trees stay put where possible; these decaying, woody areas provide nesting habitat for many pollinating and other important insect species. You can also let some areas of your yard “go wild,” and designate “no-spray” and “no-mowing” zones.

Many insects that live in colonies will not nest in a high disturbance area such as lawns that are frequently mowed. Apart from promoting nesting habitat for pollinating insects, this also helps to cut down on mowing time and yard maintenance. Plant a diverse mix of local flowers and shrubs. By planting local native flowers you can help attract local pollinators and keep our plant life healthy as well.

Avoid planting hybrid and invasive flowers and plants because these often lack the pollen that local insects need and can often out compete local plants for sun, water and nutrients. Lastly: Be a beekeeper! If you have the time and resources, why not become a beekeeper? You can help our local plant population, possibly get some honey and even rent your bees to local farmers to help pollinate their crops.

All of these actions will make your property more attractive to other forms of insect, bird and plant life, and will improve the local ecology as well. Help us protect and promote bee and other pollinating insect populations for a healthy and happy coastal bays ecosystem.

 

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