On a trip to western New York in October, I was taken by how many bumble bees there were.
Some were resting on leaves, etc.
Others were collecting pollen and nectar. Because there were so many, in fact, I soon wished I knew how to identify bumble bees better.
It not uncommon to have difficulty identifying bumble bees. Some species vary quite a bit in color and don’t have a lot of distinct morphological differences. Much of the bumble bee literature is quite old and the keys are out of date.
Fortunately The USDA Forest Service and The Pollinator Partnership recently have created two identification guides for bumble bees: Bumble Bees of the Eastern United States by Sheila Colla, Leif Richardson and Paul Williams and Bumble Bees of the Western United States by Jonathan Koch, James Strange and Paul Williams
The two guides can be downloaded as free .pdfs at The Xerces Society (scroll to bottom of page).
(There are free downloadable bumble bee posters at the USDA Forest Service, too -scroll down.)
Looking through the Bumble Bees of the Eastern United States guide, I believe the bumble bee above on the thistle flower is Bombus impatiens, the common eastern bumble bee.
I can’t wait to give the western one a try on the species here in the Southwest.
Have you seen these guides? What kind of bumble bees do you see regularly?
Also, does anyone know of a rather small bumble bee that may have been introduced to western New York?
Have you seen the new book The Bee: A Natural History by Dr. Noah Wilson-Rich with contributions from Kelly Allin, Norman Carreck, and Dr. Andrea Quigley?
Dr. Wilson-Rich is an urban beekeeper and although (as the cover suggests) honey bees are the main focus of the book, it includes information about all kinds of bees. After discussing the evolution and development of bees, as well as their biology and behavior, the authors review the history of bees and humans and also beekeeping. The authors follow up with “A Directory of Bees,” which is a pictorial field guide to solitary bees, bumble bees, stingless bees and honey bees. The directory is illustrated with large color photographs of preserved specimens from around the world.
The final chapter goes into the challenges currently faced by bees, including weather, climate, pests and diseases. Finally, the authors discuss some of the research initiatives aimed at helping bees and what individuals can do to help protect our bees, such as plant flowers and participate in citizen science projects. (My personal suggestion is to let your dandelions grow because they provide honey bees a meal late into fall and even early winter.)
The book is exceptionally appealing visually. Almost every page has a mix of color photographs and old-fashioned line drawings or wood cuts, with sidebars and other interesting features. Obviously, a lot of care was put into the design.
If you already know something about bees, you might be interested to find out that the book doesn’t just hash over old material. For example, as Dr. Wilson-Rich also mentions in his TED Talk (see below), beekeepers are finding honey bees in urban environments, such on the rooftops of city buildings, are doing better than those in rural and suburban areas. It might seem counter-intuitive, but two out of three overwintering hives survived in the city compared to two out of five in the country. The urban honey bees also produced more honey. They have some suggestions why this may be the case, such as the cities are warmer overall and probably the honey bees are exposed to less pesticides, but the bees are also likely having less interactions with other bees that might pass diseases or compete for resources.
Bees have been in the news and people are interested in learning more about them. The Bee is a quick and easy-to-read overview of a topic that would be equally useful for the layperson who knows little about bees and the beekeeper who wants to learn about bees from a more general perspective. Be prepared for a visual treat.
You can get a taste for how passionate Dr. Wilson-Rich is in his TED talk:
Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Princeton University Press (August 24, 2014)
Disclosures: The book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. I am an affiliate for Amazon, and if you click through the linked titles or ads and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra charge to you. Proceeds will be used to maintain this self-hosted blog.
Did you know that National Pollinator Week is coming up June 16-22, 2014?
To get prepared for Pollinator Week, let’s take a look at gardening as a way to encourage local pollinators.
How would you go about it? If you have the typical vast expanse of grass, one step could be to carve out areas from that lawn and start adding beds and borders of a diversity of flowering plants. Over time, you could continue to expand the beds until you reach the point where you can recycle the lawnmower.
Choosing which plants to include in a pollinator garden may be complicated. The best solution is to grow plants that originated in a given area or native plants.
There are regional plant lists available, but using only native plants is not always possible. These specialized plants may not be available in local nurseries, larger natives may require more space than is available, or there may be local restrictions on landscape appearance that prohibit use of plants that look “messy.”
An alternative is to grow common landscape plants. The question then becomes which ones will suit your local pollinators.
In a recent paper in the journal Functional Ecology, Mihail Garbuzov and Francis L. W. Ratnieks quantified how attractive common landscape plants were to bees and other flying insects in a scientific way. They carried out their studies in Great Britain, but give good suggestions that could be used anywhere. For example, geraniums (flowers of the genus Pelargonium) are not a good choice for a pollinator garden no matter where you live because the flowers produce no nectar.
In this video Dr. Ratnieks explains their techniques and some of their findings:
Did you notice how many of the preferred plants were common herbs? Planting an herb garden would give a double benefit, being useful to your cooking and to pollinators.
The take home message is that spending some time getting to know the habits of your local pollinators before you plant your garden can go a long way towards helping them survive in the future.
What do you think? Are quick observations sufficient to make generalizations about pollinators or should there be more rigorous studies like this one by Garbuzov and Ratnieks?
Garbuzov, M., Ratnieks, F. L. W. (2014), Quantifying variation among garden plants in attractiveness to bees and other flower-visiting insects. Functional Ecology, 28: 364–374.