By Kate Crowley
Here it is the first week of October and all our flowers continue to bloom and not a hint of frost in the forecast! We all enjoy these beautiful autumn days, maybe even more than any others because we know they are numbered. I’ve noticed in recent days that it’s not only us humans who are basking in this warmth and unusual climatic conditions; but so are the bees.
Last week when it was cloudy and moist I was surveying the flower beds and stopped by the maroon colored chrysanthemums. All over the golden disks in the center of the flower were bumblebees. They were very lethargic and really didn’t seem able to fly. I tested one with a stick and it could move its wings, but did not get airborne. These bees very slowly moved from flower to flower probing the nectar tubes. There was no pollen collecting on their bodies, which is an unintended side effect from their search for nourishment. They only make small amounts of a honey-like substance for their own survival.
Today, with temperatures in the mid-60s and the sun shining in all its glory I again walked by the flowers and again the mums are covered with these bees, but today they are flying from one yellow disk to the next. When I stopped by the snapdragons I watched in fascination and wonder as one bee pushed its way into the center of the flower and disappeared from view and the lower lip closed up behind the bee, just as if it has swallowed it whole. Luckily snapdragons aren’t carnivorous plants. The flower didn’t move until the bee turned around and pushed itself out of the flower’s ‘mouth’. I have never seen this happen and realized that you could easily pick a bouquet of ‘snappies’ and carry a bee inside with them. Honestly, nature’s adaptations and connections are a source of endless surprise and thrill for me. For bees and flowers it has been a process of coevolution for millennia.
We have at least 20 species of Bumblebees (Bombus spp) in Minnesota and they generally pretty easy to identify because they have such fuzzy bodies and tend to be rounder in shape than Honey bees. I often hear people talk about getting stung numerous times by bees and I believe that in most situations, they have encountered wasps or hornets. There are significant differences between these two groups. The bees are pollinators and absolutely necessary for the continuation of the vast majority of flowering plants on the earth. Hornets and wasps (both in the order Hymenoptera)are mainly predators, which means they eat other insects, lots and lots of insect, but in the spring wasps will visit flowers for nectar and thereby are involved in the transfer of pollen. Bees (both Honey and Bumblebees) can sting us, but they usually need to be provoked in some manner. Hornets and wasps tend to be more aggressive and easily agitated.
Several wild bee species have been declining over the past two decades. Honeybees have been hit hard too. Most recently in South Carolina honeybee keepers faced the enormous loss of millions of bees, poisoned by the pesticide Naled, which is meant for controlling mosquitoes. This comes on top of the colony collapse disorder that has struck bee hives across the country. Last year beekeepers in the U.S. lost 44% of their bees! That figure should scare all of us who not only like to eat honey, but also appreciate having fruits, nuts and vegetables in our diet.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which is responsible for putting species on the Endangered Species list has just put seven yellow-faced bee species, once abundant in Hawaii on the list. It had earlier proposed adding the rusty patched bumble bee, an important pollinator once found right here in the upper midwest and north-eastern United States, onto the endangered and threatened species list; the first in the continental United States formally proposed for protections.
There are the usual threats to these species; habitat loss, parasites, pathogens, invasive species, and herbicides which kill the plants they need for nectar. But most concerning of all are the pesticides, not specifically intended to kill bees, but which do anyway. Neonictinoids, produced by companies like companies like Bayer and Syngenta have been incorporated into thousands of the annual flowering plants that we buy each year in the spring. Unless they are labeled as such, we have no idea whether we are buying bee killers or not.
Nowadays, as consumers, we must be aware and vigilant and ask questions in order to make the best choices for our own health, as well as that of the other creatures that share this planet with us.