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Have You Seen Me? A Guide to the Native Bees at Risk of Extinction (And How You Can Help Them)

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Have You Seen Me? A Guide to the Native Bees at Risk of Extinction (And How You Can Help Them)

December 14, 2023

This is part of a series with Perfect Earth Project, a nonprofit dedicated to toxic-free, nature-based gardening, on how you can be more sustainable in your landscapes at home.  

It’s winter. The trees are bare, the ground is (hopefully) covered in fallen leaves, and the palette of the landscape is muted. While it might look barren, there is a whole world living just out of sight. “Native bees might not be buzzing now,” says Sarah Kornbluth, a field associate in Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History. “But they are all around us, hibernating in soil, stems, cavities, standing dead vegetation, and leaf litter, ready to emerge next spring.”

Photography by Jennifer Bishop, unless otherwise indicated.

A female common eastern bumblebee with full pollen baskets (indentations on a bee’s rear legs that are covered in stiff hairs that trap pollen). “The bumbles are some of the easiest native bees to spot and learn about,” says Kornbluth, who adds that these social bees generally live in underground spots, like in an abandoned mouse burrow.
Above: A female common eastern bumblebee with full pollen baskets (indentations on a bee’s rear legs that are covered in stiff hairs that trap pollen). “The bumbles are some of the easiest native bees to spot and learn about,” says Kornbluth, who adds that these social bees generally live in underground spots, like in an abandoned mouse burrow.

There are more than 3,600 described species of native bees in North America, from large fuzzy bumblebees to tiny metallic green gems, some sporting masks and others flaunting their extra-long antennae, living in forests, deserts, tundra, meadows—basically anywhere there are flowers. While they might not get as much attention as, say, monarch butterflies, they are vital pollinators in our ecosystem and food web. They are also in trouble. Like many pollinators, native bees are struggling due to habitat loss, pesticide use, and also from competition and disease from non-native honeybees. [To learn more about how honeybees compete with native bees, see The Backlash to Urban Beekeeping.] At The Battery in downtown Manhattan, the garden team is working hard to support them. They removed their honeybee hives and are incorporating more pollinator-friendly native plants into the gardens, says Jennifer Bishop, zone gardener at The Battery. They’re also about to embark on a pollinator survey with Kornbluth.

The brown-belted bumblebee is native to much of the U.S. It gets its name from its thin reddish-brown “belt.&#8\2\2\1; These large ground-nesters can be found in prairies, meadows, and fields where they reuse abandoned burrows or cavities. Photograph by Steven Mlodinow.
Above: The brown-belted bumblebee is native to much of the U.S. It gets its name from its thin reddish-brown “belt.” These large ground-nesters can be found in prairies, meadows, and fields where they reuse abandoned burrows or cavities. Photograph by Steven Mlodinow.

“The Battery’s been interested in learning a lot more about all of the organisms that use the garden besides humans to incorporate into their education programs and landscaping management practices,” says Kornbluth. “I’m very interested in knowing which bees are living where, what they need, and how we can provide for them. Are there bees that prefer soil nesting or cavity nesting? What nesting habitats are being provided here? What flowers do they prefer? What is the community telling us about what the habitat is rich in or poor in?” Kornbluth and team started with a preliminary study of native bees at The Battery this year and will launch a full survey in 2024.

Sweat Bees are small, docile, and great pollinators. They are also attracted to salt. Some are even attracted to mammal sweat. “People often mistake bright green sweat bees for flies,” says Kornbluth. One way to distinguish between the two is to look at their eyes. “Fly eyes take up more than 75 percent of a fly&#8\2\17;s head, while bee and wasp eyes take up less than 50 percent,” she says. Photograph courtesy of USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.
Above: Sweat Bees are small, docile, and great pollinators. They are also attracted to salt. Some are even attracted to mammal sweat. “People often mistake bright green sweat bees for flies,” says Kornbluth. One way to distinguish between the two is to look at their eyes. “Fly eyes take up more than 75 percent of a fly’s head, while bee and wasp eyes take up less than 50 percent,” she says. Photograph courtesy of USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.

The team surveys the population by observing and collecting species with nets and by setting passive traps. The traps, which they call bee bowls, are plastic cups painted fluorescent yellow or blue, or white. These colors mimic the color of the nectar guides that flowers use to lure pollinators to visit. The cups are filled with soapy water to trap the insects. “We then collect, pin, and identify each species and will make observations of species we can identify without killing,” says Kornbluth. They also post photographs of bees on iNaturalist for identification.

“The priority in gardening is no longer just about mastering an aesthetic,” says Bishop. “There is a shift toward being more mindful and ethical. We need to embrace the natural systems that we’ve just forgotten about.” Here’s what you can do at home. 

These tiny masked bees are solitary, nesting in twigs and stems. Since they’re so small, they prefer small flowers, even “ones we might not really notice, like those found in an alternative lawn” says Kornbluth. Because of their size, they can go deep inside flowers to get nectar. Not particularly hairy, they don’t carry pollen on their bodies, like other bees, but carry it in their “’crop,’ the upper part of the digestive tract.” This masked bee was spotted foraging on snakeroot in Bishop’s garden. 
Above: These tiny masked bees are solitary, nesting in twigs and stems. Since they’re so small, they prefer small flowers, even “ones we might not really notice, like those found in an alternative lawn” says Kornbluth. Because of their size, they can go deep inside flowers to get nectar. Not particularly hairy, they don’t carry pollen on their bodies, like other bees, but carry it in their “’crop,’ the upper part of the digestive tract.” This masked bee was spotted foraging on snakeroot in Bishop’s garden. 

Grow native plants in your garden. 

Native insects coevolved with native plants. They’re part of an intricate food web system. For most organisms, non-native plants are like “plastic fruit in a fruit bowl,” says Kornbluth. “It may look good, but they won’t be able to eat it.” While nectar-eating insects are able to enjoy the sugary, calorie-rich nectar from a wide range of flowers, “pollen, which bees need to feed their young, is more likely to come from the local native species that they have been coevolving with them for many thousands of years,” says Kornbluth. (At Perfect Earth Project, we advocate for at least two-thirds native plants in your garden.)

Don’t use pesticides. 

Even organic ones. Pesticides (and that includes insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides) don’t discriminate and will kill all insects—not just the ones you’re targeting. When selecting plants at the nursery, ask if they’ve been treated with pesticides of any kind, especially neonicotinoids, a systemic insecticide that is absorbed by the entire plant rendering every part poisonous to pollinators. 

Above: Male longhorn bees feature very long antennae. These bees are specialists of Asteraceae, and especially love sunflowers. Look for them buzzing about in July and August. 

Provide nesting spots.

Native bees nest in the ground and in stems and wood piles. “It’s important to remember that the standing dead vegetation you see is full of bees,” says Kornbluth. Try not to cut back stems when flowers are done blooming, but leave them for the bees. If you’re concerned about how that’s going to look, visit The Battery, says Bishop, and see how pretty it is all winter long. “Embracing a plant’s complete life cycle—from seedlings in spring to seed head or grass mound in winter—is a Piet Oudolf trademark,” says Bishop of the visionary Dutch landscape designer who created the garden’s master plan. “By not deadheading, we allow the life cycle to stay on display and integrate into design year-round. And this decay becomes abundant living matter and nest material for pollinators.” It’s also beautiful. “I love the aesthetic: the decay, structure, and different textures of every plant—they each have their own kind of personality,” says Bishop.

But if you must cut some stems back, Kornbluth advises leaving last year’s stems as high as you can. While you’re at it, leave the leaves. In addition to feeding the soil, fallen leaves provide insulation for ground-nesters, like bumblebees and mining bees, as well as other hibernating organisms. “It prevents the surface of the earth from getting too cold, which impacts their survival over the winter,” says Kornbluth.

Look and learn.

“Do a small insect safari at home,” suggests Kornbluth. Bishop has been doing this in her own backyard in Westchester, New York, and happily admits the glee she feels when finding new species in her garden. “Give yourself the opportunity to be meditative and peaceful,” says Kornbluth. See who’s coming to eat. What do you notice about them? What plants are they visiting? When are they appearing? Share what you find on iNaturalist. “The whole process is very eye-opening, engaging, and connecting.” 

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