Native Bees 101 with Researcher Sam Droege
Researcher Sam Droege talks about the importance of bees in our backyards, their role in our lives, and how we can help stop the population from declining.
This male bee was collected on Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County. Photograph provided by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Bee inventory and Monitoring Lab.
If the only image that comes to mind when you think of a bee looks like a real-life equivalent of the Cheerios mascot, Sam Droege wouldn’t be surprised. He would, however, think you’ve got a lot to learn.
A researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Droege works with native bees, or those that existed in North America before the honey bee was introduced by European settlers. To this day, those native bees are responsible for pollinating a large number of our plants, fruits, and vegetables.
“Behind the scenes, before honey bees came over here, there were lots and lots of flowers, lots and lots of plants,” Droege said. “About 75 percent of all the native plants required some kind of pollinator, which means a bee, to move the pollen around. So, we had a really large number of different kinds of species of native bees that did that work.”
According to Droege, there are about 4,000 species of native bees, almost 500 of which have been identified in the mid-Atlantic. But despite those numbers, it’s honey bees that people most often credit when they see a field of blooming flowers.
“With rare exceptions, we don’t actually need honey bees to pollinate our gardens,” said Droege, who coordinates the USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab. “Out in the wild, back here in the woods, in the spring when you have blooming huckleberries and blueberries — it’s all native bees that are doing it.”
Sam Droege, researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center’s Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab, has made studying native bees and other pollinators his life’s work. He said it is a pretty simple equation: no flowers equals no bees, and that is dangerous for humans and their survival.
There are a number of differences between native and honey bees, from how they defend themselves to how they look. It’s honey bees, not native species, that people are allergic to, Droege said, and the native species do not all look like what comes on your cereal box.
“You have all these different flower sizes and shapes. Why? Because different flower shapes and sizes fit different bees. And the flowers and the bees are kind of co-evolving,” Droege said. “They’re really beautiful, too, in just the diversity of size and shape.”
One thing honey and native bees do have in common, though, is both are in decline. And the biggest cause of that decline for the native bees is land development and the loss of native woodlands, fields, and meadows — all things that make up a bee-friendly landscape.
Droege said it is a pretty simple equation: no flowers equals no bees. And that math is not good for humans either, with about a third of our food calories coming from something bees played a direct part in.
“Anything that has color that you eat is probably pollinated by a bee. So, vegetables, berries, fruits ... nuts, too,” Droege said. “If we didn’t (have bees) we’d be eating mostly grains, which is kind of boring. And if you’re gluten free, you’re really in trouble.”
On the bright side, not all hope is lost for bees, and there are two fairly simple ways to help in your own backyard. The first, and most obvious, way to help, is to plant native flowers. And the more different types, the better, Droege said, as native bee species can be picky and tend to only visit one type of plant. He also suggests avoiding what he calls “big box store flowers” like geraniums and petunias, which have often been bred to survive without pollen and nectar, and therefore offer nothing to support bee populations.
“Just have something blowing that’s native all year round,” Droege said. “Particularly in the spring … Most bee species are out in the spring.”
The second way people can help — what Droege calls “the big one” — is to get rid of or decrease the size of your lawn.
“When you’re mowing your lawn, you should be feeling guilty because you’re mowing all the flowers down and you’re not supporting anything,” Droege said. “Bees need flowers, flowers produce seeds, birds need seeds. So, all of a sudden, instead of cutting all the natural habitat down, putting in this lawn, which supports nothing, and then putting up a bird feeder — you’re more integrated into the wild neighborhood.”
Droege admits getting rid of your lawn can be tough, especially in communities that value the aesthetic of a well-maintained yard. In these cases, he recommends keeping the edges of your lawn, sidewalk, and foundation trimmed — things that make growth elsewhere seem intentional and not a sign of neglect.
He also suggests moving from a weekly mowing to a once or twice per year schedule.
“A lot of it is re-thinking what kind of lawn we need here … There’s lots of little, tucked away places that essentially don’t need to be mowed,” Droege said. “Decreasing the weekly mowing cycle and replacing it with an annual mowing, that’s huge. People have to be clever about it.”
The mid-Atlantic has nearly 500 different species of native bees, most of which are ground nesters.
Most native bees either require or have strong preferences for pollen from native rather than exotic non-native plants to raise their young.
Only the six or so regional bumblebee species defend their nests with stings. The remaining bees are solitary nesters and either cannot sting or do not defend their nests. You likely have stood on and passed many thousands of their nests in your lifetime.
Within a mile of your yard (urban or rural) there are more than 100 species of bees looking for the right plants.
The average acre has around 20,000 bees produced on it each year.
Information and photo provided by the USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.
According to the USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab, the following recommended categories of native plants should be planted first, if possible, to support the least common types of native bees. However, any native plant that has flowers will be attractive to at least some pollinators. The best options are those that bloom throughout the year, with an emphasis on spring flowering shrubs and brambles, and fall composites.
You can learn more about native bees and the plants that help attract them by following USGSBIML on Instagram, Flickr, and Tumblr.
Winterberry and other native shrub hollies
New Jersey Tea
Annual and perennial sunflowers
Thistle (native, not Canada or Bull)
Loosestrifes (natives, not purple or garden)
Spring woodland species like wild geranium, troutlily, spring beauty, bellworts