Nature Notes: A Buzzing Sanctuary
By Libby Humphries, Environmental Educator
During the warmer months at The Ridges, a symphony of insects can be heard from the front garden to the Range Light corridor and throughout the rustic trails. This series of music, formed by layers of species harmonizing in unison, is the song of summer here. One of the key musicians in this seasonal band is a group of some of our most cherished pollinators: bees.
The fact that these fuzzy friends call The Ridges home is not by chance. As part of our mission of preservation, our team of staff, members, and volunteers has dedicated themselves to maintaining the native landscapes at the Sanctuary. At the Nature Center, this means planting beneficial plants that pollinators can use for everything from nectar to laying their eggs. In the heart of The Ridges, this means battling invasive species and researching the rare plants that inhabit our ridges and swales.
The result of these efforts is quite the buzzing Sanctuary. As a Summer Naturalist, I documented 25 bee species on Ridges property from May through August alone. That’s a lot of bees! Even more, these species are members of five of the seven bee families: Andrenidae (ground-nesting bees), Apidae (bumble bees and honey bees), Colletidae (plasterer bees), Halictidae (sweat bees), and Megachilidae (leaf-cutter bees). To my surprise, many species I documented don’t fit the bill for what we traditionally think of as a bee: large, yellow, and fuzzy like flying teddy bears (think bumble bees). Most were about the size of my thumbnail, sporting metallic greens, browns, or reds. Some were black and shiny like a small wasp – or they had thick scopa (pollen-collecting hairs) on the underside of their abdomens.
L to R, Top to Bottom: 1. Flat-Tailed Leafcutter Bee (Megachile mendica) 2. Golden Sweat Bee (Augochlorella aurata) 3. Texas Leafcutter Bee (Megachile texana) 4. Wilke’s Mining Bee (Andrena wilkella) 5. Davis’s Cuckoo Sweat Bee (Sphecodes davisii) 6. Brown Belted Bumble Bee (Bombus griseocollis). Photos by Libby Humphries.
While conducting this summer project, it occurred to me that the world of bees is extremely diverse – so why is the focus of “save the bees” campaigns often solely on honey bees? Well, we’re more intimately involved with them compared to wild bee species. Humans have been domesticating the western honey bee (Apis mellifera) since at least 2600 BC–that’s 4,623 years of beekeeping! It’s no wonder that when we think of a bee species worth “saving,” the honey bee comes to mind first. After all, we’ve used them for major agricultural pollination since the early 20th century. In reality, honey bees aren’t the only bees we need to be worried about.
Honey bees are a non-native introduced bee species; they were brought over to the Colony of Virginia from Europe in the early 1600s. Because Apis mellifera is a domesticated bee species, hives are under the constant care of beekeepers. Thus, they needn’t worry about finding food and shelter. In comparison, there are 3,600 native species in North America that have been here for thousands, if not millions of years. They have to fend for themselves, relying exclusively on their environment for foraging resources, nesting habitat, and overwintering. This fact has contributed to their devastation; habitat destruction is killing our bees. According to the Xerces Society, a non-profit focused on invertebrate conservation, 28% of North American bumble bee species are considered threatened by the IUCN. Even more alarming, 40% of invertebrate pollinators are at risk for extinction in just the next few decades. A loss of pollinators to this degree could spell disaster for species beyond those with six legs.
It’s important to note that wild animals are as dependent on native bees for their food as we are on honey bees. Their pollination efforts create nuts, seeds, fruits, and foliage for the individuals in their environments. Even bees themselves are a tasty snack for those who dare. Simply put, they are a key source of energy in our ecosystems. Without them, both predator and prey would see detrimental effects.
While the looming threat of extinction is intimidating, all hope is not lost for these bustling creatures. As environmental stewards, we can restore and conserve native habitats so our bees can thrive. Native bee species have co-evolved with the plants in their environment, meaning that their pollination methods are the most efficient on native flowers. They’re also messy! Compared to honey bees who store compact pollen on their hind legs, wild bees usually carry pollen as dry grains all over their bodies. When they go from flower to flower in search of nectar, some of these pollen grains fall off and pollinate the plant. By landscaping with plants that grow in your specific ecoregion, you’re feeding the bees and your environment. How great is that?
The pollinator work we do at The Ridges wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of citizen scientists in our community. If you’re interested in learning more about citizen science at the Sanctuary, please join us for our first annual Citizen Science Symposium on October 21 from 9:00 am to 12:00 pm. Reports and anecdotes from The Ridges Sanctuary, Crossroads at Big Creek, and Door County Land Trust will serve as celebration of a successful field season.
Wisconsin’s Bees/Bee Identification
Native Plant Lists
Crane, Eva (1999). The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting.