Bumblebee: Friend of the Corn, Human Beings and other Native Bees
I’m thrilled there are so many bumblebees and native bees swarming around our corn patch. Yesterday I also saw several metallic green Sweat Bees (Augochlora pura ). Sweat bees were so named because of their attraction to human sweat. In addition to the ones with the metallic green bodies, they are many other kinds of the sweat bee—about 40 different kinds. (Perhaps I was the one attracting them in the corn patch yesterday.) But most likely it was the corn tassels that attracted them. After having much of their pollen shaken loose by the bumblebee buzz pollination* the tassels made “easy picking” from other smaller pollinators like many of our tiny native bee that are often mistaken for flies. These “Johnny-come-later” native bees don’t have to work hard to get some pollen.
Bumblebees are not tidy pollinators like the European honeybee who efficiently store pollen in pockets on their hind legs. In the bee world, bumblebees are like large hairy bears. They shake the anthers (the parts of the flower holding the pollen) using a process that scientists refer to as “buzz pollination”. All of the bumblebees I’ve observed will walk all around the flower until they locate the anther of the flower. Then they turn upside down and vibrate for a few seconds to shake the pollen loose from the anther. Using their legs and mouth, they contract their flight muscles to produce vibrations that thus release pollen grains from the anther. Perhaps they don’t always turn upside down. I don’t know. All the ones I’ve observed do. View a video of a bumblebee buzz pollinating at this link:
Understanding the Big Picture
Pollen is a big deal—a critical substance for human life. I know it makes some people sneeze, but without pollen and without our pollinators, we would starve to death.
As pollinators, Bumblebees contribute to our food security and the healthy functioning of our ecosystems. They are keystone species in most ecosystems, necessary not only for native plant reproduction, but also necessary for creating seeds and fruits that feed us. And, as observed yesterday and today, Bumblebees support other pollinators as well by making it easier for them to get pollen.
Like much of our wildlife, due to the destruction of their habitat with encroaching urbanization, the bumblebees have drastically declined in numbers over the past twenty years in particular. One species, the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis) is now (as of March 2017) on the official list as an endangered species. This follows an 87% decline in this species population since the late 1990s. It is found in only 13 states. [Texas is not included.]
Folks who look upon the destruction of a species as no big deal are people who lack an understanding of the bigger picture of the interrelatedness of all life on our planet. All plants and animals have a role to play in the vast chain of life. The loss of even one species has a negative effect on the entire chain.
Urban Agriculture and Ordinary People Can Recover and Save the Natural World
I am convinced that ironically it's people who live in urban areas who have the most power to recover and save not only the natural world, but our agricultural system as well. We can do this by restoring habitat for nature right in our own yards and city parks by using these areas for growing native plants and a few edibles. In urban and suburban America, we still live in an upside down world where the lawn rules supreme with a few shrubs up near the house and perhaps a few pansies around the mailbox. We will have to change some of the things we tell ourselves about our lawns. Perhaps a good starting place would be asking ourselves: who or what does a lawn serve—especially in the front yard. Children don’t play on them and they do not support any life—how could they with the amount of chemical fertilizers and Roundup that are poured on them year after year?
Sometimes it seems as if we are devolving instead of evolving as a species. For example, 300 years ago the European settlers coming to the USA brought dandelions with them as a winter green. Today, we spend billions of dollars every year to eradicate this plant we now identify as a “weed.” These activities are made all the more absurd by the fact that when our weather turns hot, the dandelion dies anyway. If more of us could only develop an affinity for dandelion greens and dandelion tea.
But I take heart from what is happening in urban areas much larger than the city in which I live. For example, Paris, France, with a population of 2,241,346 people is also a metropolitan area that has been pesticide-free now for fifteen years. One of the pleasing results of this is that the European honeybee is thriving there. Today the city boosts almost 400 hives. This is good news, but over a century ago there were more than 1,000 hives in Paris. These hives almost totally disappeared in the decades after World War II. Recently they did an analysis of the honey made in Paris and discovered it contained more than 250 different pollens. In their countryside, there can be as few as 15 or 20 pollens. [Source: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-10942618 - accessed 06/11/2017]
All it takes is for individual urban homeowner and even apartment dwellers to choose to plant a few edibles or native plants. Put some diversity into the urban landscape. Then observe, enjoy and learn from what you plant and the visitors to your habitat and garden.
A great argument for a garden over a lawn is water. A garden uses 66% less water than a lawn.