Support Your Local Bees
Awhile ago, my friend Erin got a honey bee tattoo, which has personal significance to her for various reasons, including the meaning of her middle name, Melissa.
She showed it to me excitedly, stretching
out her arm.
"Uhh," I said.
"You don't like it?!"
"Well," I said, "it's a very lovely bumble bee."
"Yeah!" she said, beaming.
"But I thought you wanted a honey bee? That's a bumble bee."
"Yeah!" she said again, now looking at me like I had grown wings. "Same thing. They're bees. Isn't it cute?"
Aghast, I had to inform Erin that honeys and bumbles are not the same. In fact, I rambled on, a bumble bee is not even one thing, but hundreds of things. There are more than 30 types of wild bumble bees just in Oregon! Meanwhile, honey bees aren't even from the Americas originally, and while they are important to modern agriculture and great for honey, their invasion and dominance can push out essential native species that keep our land blooming and bellies full!
Erin seemed more bugged by my unsolicited info-dumping than by getting the wrong tattoo. "Whatever," she concluded. "A bee is a bee." (If ever she does regret the mismatch, she can swap Melissa with Humla, a Scandinavian name meaning "bumble bee.")
A bee is indeed a bee, but that's rather unspecific, as "bee" is a category of about 20,000 species worldwide, including nearly 4,000 in North America. Around here, you'll find bees of the sweat, carpenter, mason, leafcutter, miner, and cuckoo varieties.
All these bees are pollinating juggernauts. Bees are to pollination as Kardashians are to reality TV — iconic, omnipresent, and there's more of them than you think. I don't care if you like Kylie Jenner, but I do care if you like bees. They keep plants growing, which keeps humans growing. Do you like eating? Do you like breathing? Do you like the color green? Thank a bee!
As you may know, times aren't easy for our little striped friends. You've probably heard of colony collapse disorder, in which swarms of honey bees disappear or die. The causes that are still being researched include mites, viruses, pesticides, habitat destruction, and fragmentation. As I told Erin (who ignored me), honeybees were introduced from Europe in the 17th century. They did not develop as part of regional ecosystems and sometimes act as competitors to native bees. However, their decline is still concerning, as they are integral to modern agriculture.
Plus, honey bees act as a sort of bellwether and spokesperson for other species. You won't hear about a wild bee's colony collapsing because most of them are solitary rather than social; they don't have a colony to begin with. One dead bee in the grass is easy to miss, like Waldo on a page full of American flags, while a hive suddenly emptied by an Insect Rapture makes headlines. But many native species are quietly struggling, too. About a third of North American bumble bees and mason bees are estimated to be endangered, and half of the leafcutter species are.
The good news is you can help ol' Melissa and Humla. You can't prevent mites or viruses, but you can create safe bee habitat in your yard (or on your apartment balcony, or in the neglected greenspaces at your school, office, or place of worship).
Native bees and native plants coevolved together, and their lifecycles are intertwined. Some bees are generalists, meaning they can find food or shelter in all sorts of plants, from here or far away. But many are specialists, meaning they need specific local plants to survive. The more kinds of native plants we grow, the more species we benefit.â€º You also can support bees by:
-Avoiding or reducing pesticide use
-Providing a shallow source of water
-Keeping patches of bare soil for ground-nesting bees
These days the problems facing us — agricultural instability, piles of dead bees, incorrect tattoos — can seem daunting. But with simple actions, we can save the Kardashians of pollination. (That is, if the Kardashians lost all their money, were forced to move to the suburbs, and were overshadowed by their European cousins' honey empire.) Okay, this metaphor is collapsing faster than a hive doused with gasoline and Roundup.)
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.