by SC Reporter Teresa Vazquez
Bee-coming a speaker for the bees was the buzz of the day at CROW’s Virtual Speaker Series on Feb. 15.
“It doesn’t take much to become a bee person,” Mary Bammer said. “You just have to know a little bit more than everyone else, so at the end of this talk you will be a bee person.”
Mary Bammer, Instructional Designer for UF/IFAS Honey Bee Research and Extension Lab, discussed the importance of bees, recognizing bee diversity, and how to help them during her presentation: “Speaker for the Bees: Understanding and Protecting Wild and Managed Bees.”
Bammer explained that a speaker for the bees is someone who is willing to learn about them and use their voice to speak for them whether it be by acting on their knowledge, sharing it with others, voting, or contributing to conservation efforts.
The first thing they should know is why bees are important to humans.
Pollination: Maintaining Crops and Ecosystems
Bees are widely known for playing a part in pollination: the movement of pollen from the male part of one flower to the female part of the same or different flower which results in fertilization.
Fruits, nuts and a lot of vegetables are a result of this process. Many of the crops in production are possible “thanks to pollination,” Bammer said. Although pollination is not exclusive to bees, they are the most productive pollinators.
A study done in 2008, observed the effect bees had on 100 of the most common crops that fell into 10 different categories: edible oils, nuts, spices, stimulant crops– like coffee and chocolate— vegetables, tubers, sugar, grains, fruits and legumes.
The study revealed that almost half of the crops are dependent on bees for production and those crops make up 40 percent of the world’s production value, explained Bammer.
The importance of bees lies primarily on specialty crops which she describes as those that “make life more interesting.” They include spices, fruits and vegetables that contribute to our health with vitamins and minerals while also contributing to many cultural foods.
“Bees fit into the crops [and] the foods that we eat every day,” Bammer said.
Bees are also responsible for the fertilization of wildflowers with about 94 percent of them being dependent on bees and other insect pollinators. Although most people will think about honey bees when talking about pollination, there are many other species pitching in.
Bee Diversity and Why It Matters
In Florida there are approximately 316 bee species buzzing around. That number climbs to 4,000 in the North American continent, and to an approximate 25,000 worldwide.
“There’s nine different species of honey bees, and then the other 24,991 of them are something else,” Bammer said. “So, it’s interesting to me that we hear pollination, [or] we hear bee [and] we automatically think honey bees, when really honey bees are sort of a small fraction of the bees that are actually out there.”
The 25,000 species can be classified in many different ways, but a simple way to understand their differences is whether or not they are a social or solitary bee.
Social bees are those most people are familiar with, but only make up 10 percent of the North American native bee population. Social bees live in colonies, share offspring care, divide labor and have generation overlaps. Honey bees, bumble bees and sweat bees are all social bees.
In contrast, solitary bees nest and provision alone. These make up 90 percent of the North American bee population and include leafcutter bees, carpenter bees, and mason bees.
They can also be further classified by their nesting habits. Ground nesting bees create their own nesting burrows in the ground that resemble plant roots, while nesting bees make a home in preexisting tunnels and structures.
Bammer noted that the diversity of bees is very important because different bees pollinate different types of flowers and are better at pollinating in different conditions.
“Some bees are actually specialists, where they have this really cool mutualistic relationship between the plants so some species of bees only pollinate one species of plants, and vice versa, some plants only can be pollinated by one species of bees,” Bammer said. “So that diversity is really important.”
The States of Bees, Issues, and How To Help
Bammer said she always gets asked “How are the bees?” – a question that drives her crazy because it’s hard to know how 25,000 species of bees are doing. But as a bee person, it’s important to have an answer for this question.
Although media coverage has focused on the decline of the bee population these past 5 to 10 years, Bammer explains most articles are rooted in truth but are misrepresented.
She explained that the primary misrepresentation lies in the gross loss in honeybee farms. Although it is true that beekeepers in the U.S. lose about 30 to 40 percent of their honey bee colonies, there has been about a 1 percent net increase in honey bee colonies in the last decade.
This is possible due to a natural process called swarming, where bees divide one big colony into two separate functioning colonies. Beekeepers have manually implemented the split of hives to recompensate for colony loss.
“So yes, it is totally alarming that we’re losing, you know, a third or more of our bees every year. But at this point, beekeepers can actually keep up with those losses by splitting her hives,” Bammer said.
The status of wild bees is harder to determine, but many are known to be at risk noted Bammer.
Wild bee and honey bee loses are driven by different factors. Wild bee loss is attributed to habitat loss, pesticides, pests and disease, and climate change. Habitat loss and climate change have the biggest effect on wild bee numbers.
“Climate change has big impacts on things like insects, in particular, because it just impacts how resources are distributed,” said Bammer.
Honey bee loss is driven by pests and diseases, poor queen quality, bad weather, poor nutrition and pesticides. Pest and diseases are the main cause for honey bee loses.
Now, what can the average person do to help out the bees.
Although most people think bee keeping is the best thing they can do, Bammer rarely encourages it as the first step to take unless the person is prepared. It’s a job that requires an arsenal of knowledge to run smoothly.
Instead, she suggests people become a speaker for the bees. Be their voice and share your knowledge with others. She also suggests that if they are scared of bees to work on that first, take some time to sit back, and observe the bees around them.
Then, if they want to want to help further, they can help bees meet their needs and try to minimize harm. To minimize harm, Bammer suggests refraining from pesticides use unless necessary, but if used to strictly follow the label.
“You kind of have to think like a bee if you want to help the bees,” Bammer said.” They need food, they need shelter, they need safety, and they need access to mates.”
A way to ensure bees have access to their needs is by practicing “benign neglect,” explained Bammer. Allow for overgrowth in certain areas of your lawn that can provide shelter and food for bees; remove mulch, exposing soil for bees to nest in; and offer a variety of different flowers.
The four steps to achieve a successful pollinator habits are: recognize the existing potential of your yard, protect it, provide new resources and maintain those new resources. She encourages people to consider having a “mullet house”— business in the front, party in the back.
She also added that people should not underestimate weeds when creating a pollinator habitat.
“I have a little saying I like to use which is, that all you have to do to turn a weed into a wildflower is to want it, that’s truly the only difference,” Bammer said.