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Native bees do the heavy lifting

A sunny roadbank covered with a spring-blooming fleabane known as robin's-plantain, Erigeron pulchellus. The flowers of this species, and the similar Philadelphia fleabane, E. philadelphicus, lure scores of interesting native pollinators.

I have a massive archive of natural history photographs, and have learned to not let them pile up without curation. Nonetheless, a bit of a backlog has accumulated and I've been trying to spend some time each day whittling away at them. When everything is neatly labeled and placed in the appropriate folder, I can lay hands on anything in no time flat. Anyway, today I was working through an unprocessed folder of stuff from Shawnee State Forest (Scioto County, Ohio) from April 26 of last spring (2017).

Reviewing these images reminded me of the hour or so I spent prostrate on the ground, watching and photographing a constant procession of tiny native bees to the fleabane flowers. And once again, I was reminded just how vital these largely unnoticed insects are to the health of our native plant communities.

A small sweat bee in the Halictidae family (I think) works over the tiny button of disk flowers of a Philadelphia fleabane.

Nonnative honeybees, Apis mellifera, are certainly the best-known pollinators among the general public. However, these social hive-dwellers are probably of little consequence to the pollination of our native flora. While they certainly do visit native flowers, their role in pollination of these plants is probably not critical. Honeybees' primary importance is in pollinating nonnative plant crops. It's the myriad native bees and other insects, mostly ignored, that do the heavy lifting when it comes to pollination of native plants.

Note the pollen grains adhering to this sweat bee (take my names with a grain of salt; there are numerous very similar families of bees and I won't masquerade as an expert). By just lying in this spot for 10-15 minutes, I could watch a nonstop procession of hardworking little bees stopping by.

The underside of this bee is totally cloaked in a dense layer of pollen. One can only imagine how many flowers it has successfully cross-pollinated. Multiply this worker by tens of thousands (millions?) and the scope and scale of its species' value to plants, just in the 65,000 acre Shawnee State Forest, becomes apparent.

This book is a must for anyone with an interest in our native bees. Written by Heather Holm, it contains a wealth of information about the identification and natural history of our various groups of bees, along with great information on native plants. Get a copy HERE.

Comments

Auralee said…
We have a mass of New England Asters that were covered in a couple different kinds bees when they were in full bloom in mid-September. I loved to watch them collecting pollen and the large sacks they carried around with them!

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