Where the Wild Bees Roam

Native pollinators need more protection

The female squash bee rises from her nest at dawn, earlier than any honeybee or bumblebee buzzes awake. She leaves her young in a nest tunneled about a foot beneath the ground to attend to her daily tasks of sipping nectar and gathering pollen grains. She only has eyes for golden pumpkin and butternut squash blossoms flush with nectar reaching from sprawling, hairy plants.

The solitary male squash bee lives on his own; he spends his time wooing female squash bees and filling up on nectar. When the industrious lady bee buzzes up to a sun-yellow blossom unfurling from the cool night before, she hears a tiny buzzing sound — a little male squash bee that passed out in the flower after his last meal.

The squash bee is just one of 4,000 wild and native bee species in North America. Oregon is home to the blue orchard mason bee, whose metallic blue body you can see humming around your backyard gardens, pollinating roses and orchard trees like apple, pear and plum. Then there is the carpenter bee, found in southern Oregon, which lives up to three years in generational female clans and releases a rose-scented pheromone. You might see its nest-tunneling handiwork in dead logs.

But the honeybee, Apis mellifera, is the bee most people are best acquainted with. It is a nonnative species that was brought over with European settlers for its honey, and it has no specific relationship to pollinating native plants as does the squash bee. It’s also the same bee that has been in the media spotlight for its alarming decline due to colony collapse disorder (CCD), which began killing 30 to 90 percent of overwintering honeybee hives in 2006. At this point there is a significant body of research that points to diseases, mites and pesticides as the three major factors of CCD.

But while the public’s attention has been drawn to the struggle of the honeybees we can control, wild bee declines have gone unnoticed. Comprehensive studies on native bees are desperately lacking, despite their vital roles as pollinators. What research we do have shows them to be more efficient and more specialized, but it also shows their numbers plummeting, unprotected by both federal and state laws.

In the absence of meaningful government intervention on habitat protection and pesticide reform, researchers, conservationists and citizens are converging to help the bees before their numbers evaporate.

The Sky is Falling/The Bees are Dying

Sujaya Rao, a professor and researcher at OSU, is filling the void in wild-bee research by looking at the effect of native pollinators on agricultural and native landscapes. Of the $18-27 billion value that pollinating bees add to the U.S. agricultural system, wild bee species make up 15 percent. Remaining pollination occurs primarily through commercial beekeepers renting out hives to farmers.

But a 2011 study that Rao co-authored found that blueberry and cranberry harvests in Oregon could save money by forgoing renting hives for pollination, and instead improving surrounding habitat to supplement wild pollinators.

“We have a contrary situation here in the Willamette Valley,” Rao says. “We pretty much provide the resources that would allow wild bees to survive. However, as you know, in Eugene and other places there are pesticides and so even if you have a good population, you’re going to have bees dying.”

Although research on the impact of pesticides on honeybees is becoming more frequent, the large-scale effect that such toxins have on wild bees is essentially unknown. Research on wild bees is hindered by their inability to live in captivity long term, and also because many are solitary, instead of living in hives like honeybees.

The situation isn’t helped by the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency uses the honeybee as a surrogate for all wild bee species. This means that when assessing risks by pesticides and other factors such as habitat loss, the single honeybee species stands in for the 4,000 other native bees in North America, despite major physiological and behavior differences.

An example of how honeybees and wild bees differ is nesting habits. According to a Cornell study, while honeybees live in hives by the thousands in a social environment, 90 percent of wild bees worldwide are solitary, meaning they build nests with parents and offspring. Seventy percent of those solitary bee species are also ground nesting, like our female squash bee. A soil-drench application of pesticides, which may mean less to foliage-visiting honeybees, could kill off multiple ground-nesting wild bee families.

“We know very little about how their populations are doing,” says Sarina Jepsen, endangered species program director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.  “Wild bee species could be going extinct and we wouldn’t even know it. We have quickly concluded that many of our bumblebees in North America are highly endangered, vulnerable or threatened, and yet there is not a single bumblebee that is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, meaning that they don’t have any formal protection, federally.”

Neonicotonids are the class of pesticide most closely associated with bee decline, and a recent study in the Netherlands also linked them to bird deaths. In Wilsonville during June 2013, a neonic pesticide called dinotefuran killed 50,000 bumblebees, the largest bee die-off on record.

This past June, a private company in Eugene used the neonic imidacloprid on linden trees at an apartment complex, resulting in more than 5,000 deaths of honeybees, bumblebees, moths and other pollinators.

A recent study by Friends of the Earth found neonics in 51 percent of plants bought at large garden retailers in 18 cities in the U.S. and Canada, posing a pervasive problem to homeowners who want to start bee-friendly gardens.

Jepsen, who is working with the International Union for Conservation of Nature to upgrade more accurate statuses of wild bees, says that one-third of wild bees in North America are facing some level of extinction. In Oregon alone, seven of the 25 species of bumblebees are threatened or vulnerable.

The Franklin bumblebee, endemic to southern Oregon and northern California, may already be extinct, with evidence pointing to diseases spread from imported commercial bumblebees as the culprit.

Eugene, along with Oregon as a whole, is working towards addressing the multi-faceted issue of bee decline. Oregon has banned the import of commercial bumblebees due to the threat of disease. Earlier this year, the city of Eugene banned the use of neonics on city property, and the Oregon Department of Agriculture set up a temporary moratorium on neonics after a major bee die-off, in addition to joining a national effort and creating a Pollinator Task Force to address pollinator issues. The EPA has begun its research into the risks that neonics pose to pollinators, though the studies won’t be finished until 2019.

These are steps in the right direction, but activists and conservationists assert that they are too incremental, and must be sped up if any visible difference is to be made.

The Bee Corridor

The winter of 2013 didn’t offer much of a respite in terms of colony collapse disorder. Although not as grave as years past, beekeepers reported a 21 percent loss of hives nation-wide. Ten to 15 percent is considered an acceptable loss rate, but anything over that is considered economically unsustainable for commercial beekeepers, according to Ramesh Sagili, the principle investigator at Oregon State University’s Honeybee Lab.

Sagili says that since honeybees were first brought over from Europe, their domestic numbers have created a hyper-pollinated agricultural system that is now reliant on these populous pollinators. In fact, Jepsen says that most of the money commercial beekeepers make derives from renting out hives to farmers who need their crops pollinated, instead of honey production.

Of the 2.5 million hives in the United States today, one million are trucked across country for California bloom time.

“Go to California on I-5 and you’ll see drivers taking bees to the almond crops when they’re in bloom,” Sagili says. “From all different states, their bees are only eating one type of pollen since 90-95 percent of the pollen that comes into the hive is just almond. It’s like us eating one thing and nothing else for a month, and it compromises the immune system.”

Almond trees are originally from the Middle East, and are one example of a nonnative crop that is capable of thriving with assistance from honeybees; the U.S. supplied 80 percent of the world’s almonds in 2013. Aside from the increase stress from travel, trucking bees to different blooms around the country also gives more opportunity for honeybees to intermingle and swap diseases and parasites, which some studies have shown can spread to wild bees as well.

“People don’t recognize that they’re like cattle,” says Mace Vaughan, pollinator program co-director to the Xerces Society and pollinator conservation specialist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. “They’re an introduced, managed livestock species. And while they’re fascinating, they’re not a native species. My priority has not been to demonize the honeybee by any means, but to open people’s eyes to what’s out there.”

Although the comparison of honeybees to livestock might rub some people the wrong way, the USDA agrees with Vaughan: Beekeepers with heavy losses can apply for loans through their Emergency Livestock Assistance Program.

Vaughan, who became an avid backyard beekeeper after college, says beekeeping was what first led him into the world of wild bees. Now, working with the Xerces Society, Vaughan partners with farmers in Oregon to assess what pollinator habitat they already have and see in what ways they can improve it via planting more diverse crops, reducing pesticide use, implementing integrated pest management and planting things that flower throughout the season, instead of all at once as with monocultures.

“Over the last five years we’ve seen a doubling in the cost of hive rentals, and there’s a lot more uncertainty on people’s ability to get honeybees,” Vaughan says. “As a result they’re looking to diversify the system that they rely upon in regards to crop pollination.”

As in Rao’s study on increased blueberry and cranberry yields, wild bees show the potential that could come with amping up habitat on farmlands and using honeybees as supplementary pollinators.

Jen Hornaday displays locally made honey

Made in Oregon

Overall Rao says that Oregonians are headed in the right direction, especially compared to the monocultures of corn and soybean crops in the Midwest, or heavily urbanized city centers of Los Angeles.

“Here we have a multiple cropping system, plants that bloom in sequence and we have grass seed crops that provide nesting grounds,” Rao explains. “Having this mosaic environment of urban areas bisected with agricultural areas and native areas, all that is actually very good. And then look at the citizens of Oregon. We’re gardeners and pride ourselves in spending a weekend weeding.”

Jen Hornaday fits Rao’s description perfectly. With a homestead-esque acreage full to bursting with fruit trees, vegetables and sunflowers just off River Road in Eugene, Hornaday is a model citizen of passion for bees and a creator of urban bee habitat. Aster, poppies, Liberty apples and other plants crowd together in her native pollinator garden, crying “pick me!” to the humming bees that cluster around the blooming flowers.

“I already loved gardening, and it turned out it wasn’t that much more effort to plant things that were good for bees,” Hornaday says. “Then we had the bees coming to us, and so we started learning about it and setting up hives.”

Since setting up their first hive in 2011, Hornaday and her husband, Doug Hornaday, have created 18 hives throughout Eugene and on their own property through their organization Healthy Bees = Healthy Gardens. In order for a homeowner to host a hive through the program, Jen Hornaday goes door-to-door in the neighborhood, asking that neighbors sign a pledge not to use neonics.

“On a bottle of beer it says you shouldn’t drink it if pregnant or nursing,” Hornaday says. “But there’s nothing on any of the pesticide bottles that says if you use it it will hurt the soil, degrade water quality, can make your pets sick, can make your children ill.”

The organization has advanced by leaps and bounds since starting up. In 2013, they were awarded Northwest Center for Alternative to Pesticides’ Rachel Carson Award, and they’ve helped to create five pesticide-free parks in Eugene. And, their honey received several awards at this year’s Lane County Fair.

Although Vaughan focuses on farms and commercial operations he also stresses the importance of grassroots endeavors like Hornaday’s, specifically in terms of creating native pollinator habitat.

“We need to be educating people to not use insecticides, especially in urban landscape,” Vaughan says. “They need to be planting bee-friendly gardens; a flower, a tree, a shrub, that’s going to supply additional food. And that’s what’s going to help honeybees, and at the same time help wild bees. You can create a little oasis, and if you build it, they will come.”