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Bee Identification

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Please explain the difference between honey bees and native bees.

Honey bees are not native to North America. The honey bees that beekeepers manage in the US have European origins. They first appeared on US land in the 1600s and rapidly became established across the country. While wild honey bee colonies exist, the majority of honey bees in the US are managed by beekeepers.

Native bees boast amazing diversity and over 450 different species have been identified in Minnesota. Approximately 4,000 species of native bees have been described in North America. Unlike our social honey bees that live in colonies comprised of approximately 50,000 bees, most native bees do not live in large colonies and are solitary. Most native bee species nest in tunnels in the ground and stems, which is why leaving undisturbed ground and flower stems in your landscaping is a good way to help bees.

Can I help bees by becoming a beekeeper?

The short answer is “no.” Becoming a beekeeper does not help our native and wild bees. Unfortunately, becoming a beekeeper also does not help our honey bees! While it is true that beekeepers are losing more colonies than they were 10 or 20 years ago, honey bees are not in danger of going extinct. You can best support beekeepers and their honey bees through planting bee-friendly flowers and avoiding pesticide use on or near flowers.

There are many compelling reasons to keep honey bees, but we are learning that the health problems facing honey bees actually can be exacerbated by too many beekeepers keeping too many bee colonies. A high density of bee colonies can lead to competition for few floral resources and the spread of pests and diseases, particularly if beekeepers do not monitor and treat these problems. The best way to save the bees is to plant flowers and keep those flowers free of pesticide contamination.

To help all of our pollinators, planting plentiful, diverse flowers that bloom from early spring to fall is most effective. For wild bees, it is important to also provide undisturbed nesting habitats.

Do honey bees impact wild and native bees?

Honey bees forage freely within several miles of their colony, covering thousands of acres of land, searching for nectar and pollen. Wild, native bees also search for nectar and pollen, but because most fly within ~1/3 mile of their nests, they need floral resources near their nest sites.

Honey bees visit a wide range of flowers that are also used by wild, native bees. When flowers are more scarce or patchily distributed, more bees may be forced to share the same flowers, which can lead to competition for floral resources. Sharing flowers also increases the risk of disease transmission among bees. When many honey bee colonies are kept close together in apiaries, and particularly if they are not managed properly by beekeepers, the risk of infection to wild bees living close to the apiaries may increase.

As people become more aware of the importance of native pollinators, there is growing concern about negative impacts of honey bees on native pollinators from competition for food and spread of diseases. With our current knowledge, it is difficult to make specific recommendations to limit these impacts. Honey bee colonies should only be placed in areas with more than enough flowers to support them. We know that planting more flowers will increase the likelihood that there will be enough food for all the bees. We also suspect that having more flowers will decrease the number of flowers that are being shared, and so decrease the likelihood of spreading diseases. While we have some ideas of what might be enough to support honey bees, we don’t have a good idea of how much is enough for honey bees and native bees together. The safest bet to keep native bees healthy is to reduce their exposure to honey bees.  If you are keeping honey bees and want to do all you can to help other pollinators, keep your colonies as healthy as you can and provide abundant flowers in the area surrounding your apiary.

Research on the effects of competition and risk of infection (pathogen spillover) among bees is ongoing. With our current research-based knowledge, it is difficult to make specific recommendations for how to limit floral competition or pathogen spillover. Our best advice is to plant more flowers to increase the likelihood that there will be enough food for all the bees, and a lower likelihood that bees will need to compete over resources or spread viruses through visiting the same flowers. How many more flowers are needed? The more abundant and diverse the better! Diverse flowers help support diverse pollinators.

If you are keeping honey bees and want to do all you can to help your bees and all other pollinators, keep your colonies as healthy as you can, and provide abundant flowers in the area surrounding your apiary.as disappeared from 95% of the area where they used to be found. In 2017, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) placed the Rusty-Patched Bumble Bee on the endangered species list. In Minnesota, we are lucky to still have populations of this bee species and have the opportunity to help them recover from the brink of extinction. As with all other bees, flowers are important. The rusty-patched bumble bee needs diverse flowers blooming from April to September that are kept free of pesticides. They also need places to nest, which you can create by leaving some untended corners in your yard and creating piles of leaves and sticks. Although not directly connected to their decline, the USFWS lists competition from honey bees for limited floral resources as a potential stressor that could limit the ability of rusty-patched bumble bees to collect adequate pollen and nectar resources. This is particularly a concern in urban areas such as the Twin Cities, which are home to rusty-patched populations and have high densities of honey bees due to the popularity of urban beekeeping. Reducing the density of honey bees in areas where rusty-patched bumble bee populations are found could help their recovery. You can also help by keeping your eyes peeled and snapping photos to share on iNaturalist or Bumble Bee Watch. Learn more about how to identify the rusty-patched bumble bee.

Can other managed bees such as bumble bees or mason bees impact wild bee populations?

Yes, when bees are managed, they can impact wild bee populations. Some species of bumble bees are reared commercially and some mason bees are managed when homeowners provide nest boxes for them. While it is important to have pollinators other than honey bees available for crop pollination, such as bumble bees and mason bees, these managed bees carry risk to wild bees as carriers of pests and diseases. Some species have also been moved outside of their natural range and have caused problems for the native bees. Bombus dahlbomii, one of the largest bee species in the world, is at risk of extinction due to pathogen spillover from the imported European bumble bee, Bombus terrestris. For more information on the impact of managed bumble bees on wild bumble bees, see From Humble Bee to Greenhouse Pollination Workhorse: Can We Mitigate Risks for Bumble Bees? by Elaine Evans

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