As gardeners, we are more aware than most, of the role bees play in pollinating flowers, fruits and vegetables. In the U.S., 30 percent of the food we eat requires bee pollination. European honeybees (Apis mellifera) in particular, do about 80 percent of that work.
European honeybees have been working in the U.S. for several hundred years. Unlike wild bees, which tend to be solitary workers, honeybees congregate in colonies with as many as 50,000 individuals working under the supervision of their queen. Honeybees are valued for their honey production (most bees don’t produce honey) but it’s their colony-forming lifestyle that has made them so easy to domesticate and set to work for us.
Today, the number of commercial honeybee hives in the U.S. is estimated to be about 2.4 million. Most of these hives are constantly in motion, being trucked from state to state as various agricultural crops come into bloom. California’s almond crop alone requires the services of approximately 1.3 million honeybee colonies each spring.
When scientists mapped the honeybee genome, they discovered that honeybees have about half as many toxin- and disease-fighting genes as most insects. This genetic vulnerability is a likely reason for the honeybee’s population decline over the past 50 years. Losses have been traced to a number of factors, including mite infestations, competition from invasive species such as Africanized bees, and most recently, a mysterious die-off referred to as colony collapse disorder.
Wild and native bee populations are under similar stresses and have definitely experienced population losses, but thus far they are proving to be much hardier. Researchers for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and many other research institutions are studying wild bees and other pollinators to understand how these insects can be enlisted to give honeybees a break. Bee experts at the ARS Bee Biology and Systematic Laboratory in Utah have cataloged more than 1 million entries about wild, native and non-native bees and other pollinators in six ecosystems across the country.
To learn more about our native bees and how to attract and protect them, read Alternative Pollinators: Native Bees, published by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA). Though the article was written eight years ago, it provides a good overview.