Why solitary bee awareness should be the new ‘it’ item on everyone’s holiday wishlist.
Once upon a time, the only bee I could identify was a honey bee — and not all that well. (Have you seen how fast a bee can fly?). I knew researchers who could drop the scientific name of a bee after just a glance; meanwhile the best I could do was to try not to assume every bee was a honey bee.
I am a researcher, working on native solitary bee foraging behaviour and health. I spend a majority of my time out in city parks, covered in sunscreen, following bees through flowers — or deep in the lab, working my way through the genetics of the pollen they collect.
During my first year in graduate school, a solitary bee scientist at a conference joked that he was sick of receiving bee-themed gifts for the holidays. He said his mother-in-law would not stop buying him honey bee themed pillows, cards, t-shirts, and artwork. Another researcher mentioned that her family had gotten her a four gallon jug of honey as a birthday gift, never realizing that, as I like to put it, she didn’t study those bees. Friends in solitary bee studies commonly bring these items to conferences to show them off — bee necklaces, bee earrings, bee blouses, and so on.
I swear, my field of study is responsible for 99% of the bee-themed Etsy purchases worldwide.
Of all bee species in the world, over 90% are solitary. They don’t live in hives with a single queen. They don’t create their own food sources as the social honey bees do (or the much less attractive and less tasty version that bumble bees make).
Just about everything the majority of people know about bees only applies to that approximately-ten-percent of all known species. Not all bees are black and yellow, for example. Many bees are fuzzy, the body hair characteristic to bees can be a great tool for identifying a bee from a wasp in the field, but not all bees have branched hairs on their bodies. Some even resemble wasps, as a way to protect themselves from predators.
When most people think of a bee’s home, they probably think of a big hive of honeycombs. Which is correct, as far as honeybees go.
Not so for the Ceratina, commonly known as small carpenter bees, who instead make their nests out of dead wood. They’re very unique — their bodies are dark and reflective, almost metallic-looking. They only have a few hairs on their body, so they don’t automatically look fuzzy from a distance.
Many other myths prevail! Not all bees sting. Of those that do, the act of stinging often involves the eruption of the stinger out of the body, unwinding the very body of the bee in the process, killing them instantly. And they’ll do it at a moment’s notice.
Think of it this way: honey bee colonies contain anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 or more individuals. That means thousands, if not tens of thousands of expendable bees that can go out and sacrifice their lives to defend their nests. What’s the loss of a few hundred of your most loyal followers to ensure the continuation of the entire colony for generations?
Osmia, known as mason bees for their use of mud in nest construction, are also quite dark in colouration. Males tend to have a little more yellow to their faces, but females are very big in size, close to a standard bumble bee, resembling big flies. These bees may nibble a finger if you get in their way — but they don’t sting.
Solitary female bees are responsible for the continuation of the next generation. These bees don’t have colony resources and bee midwives, which is why most solitary bees don’t have stingers either. Solitary species rely on survival over defence of the nest.
For social bees, defence of the hive is the best survival strategy for their offspring. For solitary bees, escape and survival is the best strategy for their young. Imagine this: if an attacker comes at you and you have children at home, with no one else to tend to them, you’re more likely to run away than sacrifice yourself. It’s a difficult decision, but your children are doomed either way.
For similar reasons, solitary bees in general tend to be less defensive. Some females can sting, but will only do so if trapped or threatened, and many won’t lose the stinger in the process. Many species of solitary bee do not produce venom — their bodies don’t produce it the way social bees do — so even if you’re allergic to bee stings you likely aren’t in harms way. Those that are venomous are much more likely to flee than stay to inject you.
Personally, I don’t understand why solitary bees aren’t as popular as honey bees and bumble bees. They’re just as adorable, just as interesting, and maybe even more resourceful. They don’t produce honey, but they do create some impressive structures, and are responsible for an enormous portion of plant pollination (including crop pollination!).
So why aren’t there more solitary bee-themed chachkas? Why don’t I receive a new Ceratina-colored bee necklace or a woven blanket of Osmia nesting chambers for Christmas? Where are my Megachile sweaters and Andrena mixing bowls? I blame a lack of information.
In part, lack of information on native solitary bees is due to, well, a lack of readily-available scientific knowledge about solitary bees! The main reason I decided to go into solitary bee research over honey bee research (which is better-funded) is because of all of the questions we still can’t answer about these interesting creatures. We are always on the cutting edge of a new discovery, simply because there are so many discoveries waiting to be made.
I love teaching people about solitary bees. Kids especially — have you ever showed a kid a picture of a bright metallic green bee? They can’t believe their eyes. Sure, I miss the free honey most of my honey bee researcher colleagues get to take advantage of, but it’s worth it to be able to study these amazing insects.
Next time you need to buy me a gift for the holidays, consider skipping the honey bee towel set (I have enough to last a lifetime). Instead, just talk to me about solitary bees — I have so much more to tell you about how incredible they are for our plants, our food, our well-being, and our planet.