When most people think of bees, they immediately imagine a hive full of honey bees, and strong social instinct. However, most NYC bees are different. They reject “society” for a solitary life and don’t care too much about how sophisticated their home is – a hole in the ground or a hollow tube work just fine. Found in the countryside as well as in major cities, these bees fly under the radar, literally.
Because of their less glamorous “lifestyle,” wild bees are often neglected, and that is quite a shame, given that over 4,000 species are living in North America alone. About 10% of them can be found in the New York State, signaling an impressive potential for researchers and bee enthusiasts alike.
Understanding these beautiful insects starts with getting to know their life cycle. While honeybees rely on a single female for laying eggs (the queen), native bees are all allowed to pass their genes down to the next generation. Most native NYC bees live just a year, during which their sole focus is to mate. Each female can lay between 6 and 12 eggs, which she tucks in a narrow cavity together with enough nectar and pollen to feed to larva until it reaches adulthood and can venture in the outside world. Because it is self-reliant, the female won’t engage potential enemies and won’t sting unless stepped on or squeezed. Solitary NYC bees are often ignored especially because they are docile and their interaction with humans rarely gets painful. They are also kept in the shadow for not producing large quantities of honey and wax, nor do they display a complex behavior worth studying.
Native bees are essential to the economy of the ecosystem because they are one of nature’s most efficient pollinators. Equipped with unique “baskets” on their legs and abdomen, they spread pollen from flower to flower while collecting for their own needs. Once back to their home inside the ground/tree, they deposit the treasure for the larva to have. Throughout the spring and summer months, and sometimes even during early autumn, wild NYC bees work themselves to exhaustion to make sure their offspring have enough food to grow strong.
Documenting their diversity is a crucial part of making sure that the pollinator population remains healthy and stable in the future. Differentiating between species that are native or non-native, as well as identifying those that are declining is vital for any bee enthusiast concerned about the future. However, things are far from being clear when it comes to what is right or not for the population of NYC native bees. For example, studies have revealed that non-native species make up to 25% of the total in the area of New York City. It is still a mystery whether they negatively affect the native population through increased competition for suitable nesting sites and pollen resources.
Some native bee species stand apart as having surprising features and adaptations.
Members of the Bombus species, bumble bees live in colonies usually numbering between 50 and 200 individuals. Although more social than all the other native species, the bumblebees prefer to nest in the ground. Their life cycle lasts one year, after which new queens and males will hatch to form a colony.
Although they do not stockpile honey, bumble bees are regarded as highly useful as pollinators. Both crops and wildflowers rely on these insects to reproduce. A particularly notable use of bumble bees is for pollinating tomatoes through a process called buzz pollination. The species is the only one capable of creating vibrations that are strong enough to extract the pollen.
Stocky and with small wings, the bumblebees puzzled scientist for decades, as their ability to fly seemed to cheat a basic principle of aerodynamic.
The most common species are the Common Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) and the Brown-belted Bumble Bee (Bombus griseocollis). Unfortunately, the Black and Gold Bumble Bee is one of the species whose numbers have dwindled in the last couple of years.
Carpenter bees are another guest of the bee hotels that can be found throughout NYC. The group gets its name by having the ability to cut with precision round galleries inside dead wood. Like a carpenter, the insect uses its powerful jaws to extract material and make a home inside fallen trees.
Carpenter bees are typically solitary. However, because they live up to three years, it is not rare for females to cohabit with their daughters. It is quite easy to tell carpenters bees from other native NYC bees because they are the largest in the United States.
One of the most common varieties in the area of New York City is the Xylocopa virginica, aka the Eastern Carpenter Bee. Its nesting grounds stand apart because males hover and put on display aggressive territorial battles.
Surprisingly, approximately 23% of the bee species in New York City and the surrounding region are parasites. These insects are a bizarre result of evolution, as they lost the morphologic features that enable other species to build nests and collect pollen. Left without such vital assets, the species learned to survive in a clever and surprising way.
Cleptoparasitic Bees such as the Cuckoo Bee enter the nest of other species when the female is away and lay their eggs there, typically hiding them in the cells’ walls. Once it hatches, the parasitic larva kills the young host larva and feeds on the pollen stored there. The method is even more surprising once one considers the keen sense of smell most bees possess.
Pheromones act like an ID and females should be able to tell if the nesting grounds had been hijacked. It seems that Cleptoparasitic Bees perfected the technique to an incredible degree.
Yet again, the name given to a bee species is accurate to describe how the insects construct their nests. Mining bees dig tunnels in the ground, which can extend up to 30 cm deep. Although they live in large communities, their nests are separated from another, indicating a tendency to live in relative solitude. Because they reside most of the time inside the ground, mining bees are particularly vulnerable to the large-scale use of pesticides.
The population decline registered recently is set to detriment plant pollination. Andrena salictaria is one type of Mining Bee the last estimate showed declining in New York State.
Cellophane Bees, also known as Polyester Bees, are another type of ground-nesting insects. Similar to mining bees, these NYC bees seek refuge and lay their eggs inside the ground. What is unusual about the species is that females are capable of waterproofing the walls of the nests by producing a cellophane-like substance. That means that Polyester Bees can nest in damp soil without any problem.
The incredible adaptation has attracted the attention of scientists, who are now considering whether the natural substance can be used as a biodegradable replacement for plastic. Colletes kincaidii is one type of Cellophane or Polyester Bees the last estimate showed declining in New York State.
Now more than ever, locals should be interested in boosting the native bee population. Although they do not produce honey, bees living in the wild play a crucial role in pollination, as well as in being an accurate barometer of biodiversity. Locals can help native bees by creating proper nesting grounds for them. Growing native plants also helps the bees by offering them the kind of nutrition they are best adapted to. Because most wild NYC bees seek refuge in the soil, concerned locals should avoid using pesticides or dumping polluting chemicals. Another important aspect is to reserve at least one area of the garden with undisturbed soil.
Wild native bees are worth studying because they seem to be immune to the factors that led to the worldwide phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, which is affecting honeybees. Whether it is about climate change, pollution, or pathogens, bees not living in large colonies seem to have a competitive edge that continues to elude researchers.
Caring about the fate of these insects is an important step forward in building a future in which everything is sustainable and designed to work in the long term. As always, raising awareness about the importance of the native bee population is of maximum importance.