Bees. You either love em, or you run away from them – there is a rarely a moment in between. I know a little about bees. They like our Mexican Heather plant, and our Fosters Holly when it is blooming. But I am not nearly the bee genius our Herpetology keeper Karen S. is and here is what she has to say about Bees:
Most people are familiar with European honeybees, some people are familiar with bumblebees, but very few people are familiar with solitary bees. It may interest you to know that the United States is home to an estimated 4,000 species of solitary bee (compare this to the ~5,000 mammal species found in the entire world). Experts say that about 200 bee species can be found in the greater Houston area. So… European honeybees are but one species (and not even one native to this country, hence the name “European”), there are a handful of bumblebee species, but the vast majority are solitary bees. Individual solitary bees may nest in the same general area, but they are in it for themselves – they do not form hives, live in a colony or help each other out in any way.
About 70% of the solitary bees found in the US are ground nesters, digging tunnels in the soil to lay their eggs – the remaining 30% of solitary bees are cavity nesters, laying their eggs in natural holes in wood, reeds, etc. The cavity nesting species are the bees our wooden houses will hopefully attract. These particular bees do not drill holes in your house and ruin your brand new wooden patio furniture (those are carpenter bees, which are cool in their own right…), they use only existing holes. There are a few early emerging bees that you may see around in spring, but the active season for most species is mid to late summer.
Do solitary bees sting?
All female* bees have the ability to sting, but solitary bees are not aggressive and are not interested in human interaction – if you leave them alone, they will return the favor.
(* A bee/wasp/hornet/ant stinger is a modified ovipositor [egg-laying tube] used for venom injection. Most bees you encounter are females, males don’t do much other than mate and die…)
What do solitary bees look like?
Some may approach the size of a honeybee, but most are much smaller – some species are so small you might mistake them for a gnat. These bees are variable in appearance too. They can be smooth or fuzzy (or both) and range in color from solid black to metallic blue or green. Some even have stripes or blotches of different colors.
Doesn’t the Houston Zoo have enough bees already?
The bees you see in and around the trash cans on Zoo grounds are European honeybees – you may also see hornets, flies and various other insects exploiting our wastefulness. To be blunt, human beings are enormous slobs and eat entirely too much sugar. When a honeybee finds a huge deposit of cotton candy or a melting sno-cone in the trash you can imagine the bee’s excitement: “Now that I’ve found this mountain of free sugar, why bother visiting all those flowers for nectar – its so time consuming… I’m going to tell ALL of my sisters so they can come here too!” Again, honeybees are colonial animals working for a common purpose – solitary bees have their own agenda, it is not in their best interest to “spread the word”. Solitary bees stick to flowers, but even if they were desperate enough to visit a discarded churro, they simply wouldn’t have anyone to tell about it.
Will solitary bees disturb the guests/ruin my sister’s wedding/form a huge swarm and abscond with my children?
What exactly is going on in those wooden bee houses?
When the female bee finds a suitable hole to nest in, she starts gathering provisions (nectar and pollen). She forms these goodies into a food ball, places the food ball in the far end of the hole and then lays an egg on it or next to it. Then she walls off the egg and food ball with mud or leaf-cuttings and starts the process again. The end result is a number of chambers along the length of the hole – in the last two or three chambers closest to the opening of the nest hole she lays unfertilized eggs. These will be males. After the eggs hatch, the larvae will have enough food to last through the summer/fall as they grow. The larvae will then pupate and rest over the winter – in the spring or summer (depending on species) mature bees will emerge from their nests. The first to emerge are males (since they are the closest to the opening of the hole) – they buzz around the nest holes waiting for the females to emerge so that they have first dibs when it comes to mating… Then the whole process starts again. Adult solitary bees only live for a few weeks, so the entire life cycle (egg-larva- pupa-adult) lasts about 1 year.
Why should I care about any of this?
Bees pollinate an estimated 30% of our food crops and we depend heavily on European honeybees to do the all the work. If we lose the honeybees (look up “Colony Collapse Disorder” – CCD – for more info), we darn well better have a back-up plan if we want to continue eating… Nurturing our native bees is a very wise choice for this reason. Plus they pollinate scores of other plants, plants that directly or indirectly support virtually every other organism in the ecosystem – birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fishes, insects. Yes, it’s all a big, crazy food web we can’t afford to screw up. So our job is to inform the public so that they can make wise decisions such as using biological controls instead of pesticides in the garden, planting lots of bee-friendly flowers (native if possible), providing backyard habitats, etc… The kinder we are to Mother Nature, the greater the rewards.
For more information about pollinator conservation, please visit The Xerces Society website: http://www.xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/ And, come to the Zoo this weekend for Pollinator weekend! For more information about this event go here.