Opening the June issue of National Geographic, I came across an arresting image: A silver blade of a garden trowel held a scoop of strawberry ice cream adorned with fresh strawberries. A honeybee hovered nearby, and the trowel's wooden handle was embossed with the ice-cream maker's logo. "Honey bees pollinate the ingredients that go into nearly 50 percent of our all-natural ice cream flavors," said the ad copy.
Perhaps the endorsement of this pollinator's role in food production shouldn't be surprising because, for the past two years, major news media have been covering the plight of the honeybee. What impressed me most about the two-page ad was its succinct Backyard Guide to Bee-Friendly Behavior, which discouraged the use of pesticides and encouraged growing a diversity of native plants to attract bees from early spring through fall.
Our lead story in this issue, "A Sticky Situation for Pollinators," expands on these points. More important, our story shows that the need to be friendly to bees extends beyond nonnative honeybees to our wild pollinators. The 20,000 species of native bees worldwide, including about 4,000 in the United States, play starring roles in plant reproduction. About 120 species of Minnesota's native bees pollinate flowering plants. Even tomato plants need wind or sturdy bumblebees to shake pollen from stamen to stigma.
Bees were probably pollinating flowering plants some 100 million years ago. Over millennia, bees and other insects have evolved in association with plants. Each bee species has adaptations for foraging in flowers with certain characteristics. Bees with short tongues look for composites such as asters, which have relatively shallow nectar pools. Long-tongued bumblebees can reach deeper pools at the bottom of long tubular flowers. Though native bees can also feed on nectar in some nonnative flowers, researchers are finding evidence that they prefer native plants.
As butterfly gardens and rain gardens have gained popularity, more home gardeners have begun growing native wildflowers. Some may have noticed, as I have, that these perennials also attract a variety of bees. The most observant gardener might also have noted a boost in strawberry size or more luscious tomatoes. If so, the thanks should almost certainly go to pollen-seeking native bees.
Unfortunately, because many native bees make their nests underground and look similar to wasps, people often mistake them for the more aggressive, carnivorous insects. (Except with humans, this mistaken identity works in the bees' favor to ward off potential predators.) While gardening this past spring, one of our editorial staff members turned up a small swarm of wasp look-alikes. Noting their friendly behavior, he described them to entomologist John Luhman, who confirmed that they were ground-nesting native bumblebees, most likely Bombus bimaculatus.
Though fascinating, bees may never attract as many watchers as birds and butterflies do. Nevertheless, wild bees are integral to the health of any place with flowering native plants. And anyone who loves birds and butterflies should also favor the native plants they rely on for food and shelter, says entomologist Douglas Tallamy. In his book Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, Tallamy makes a convincing case for restoring biodiversity one garden at a time.
"Like it or not, gardeners have become important players in the management of our nation's wildlife," Tallamy writes. "It is now within the power of individual gardeners to do something that we all dream of doing: to 'make a difference.' In this case, the 'difference' will be to the future of biodiversity, to the native plants and animals of North America and the ecosystems that sustain them."
Tallamy recommends planting clusters of a native species to ensure its attractiveness to people and other critters. Imagine the beauty that would result if each of this magazine's 166,238 subscribers planted a patch of a species that has blossomed in their specific region for centuries. That would be wild.
Kathleen Weflen, editor