Long before honey bees were introduced to North America in the 1600s, native (or wild) bees were doing their thing across the continent. While honey bees make important contributions to our agricultural system, native bees play an equally, if not bigger role in pollination.
Today, we’re taking a look at how honey bees impact native bees, for better or for worse. I’ll leave you with some tips for how all of us can support native bees.
Native bees are much different than the social, honey-making bees we know and love. Here’s how:
Native bees and honey bees often get along just fine as neighbors. Research shows that crops are much better in fields where both types of bee live vs. areas where only one resides. Their foraging behaviors differ, with honey bees enjoying a wide variety of blooming plants, and native bees tending to be a bit more selective – remember, those native specialist bees are choosy! Together, they contribute to more productive pollinating activity.
That said, the different species don’t exactly hang out. Native bees typically keep their distance from honey bees. This might be because honey bees tend to be territorial and become aggressive if they perceive a threat or predator.
When diverse forage is abundant, sure, honey bees and native bees can co-exist nicely. But, when forage sources are limited, the bees become competitors.
Because honey bees enjoy many plants and come in large numbers, they sometimes hog plants that a specialist native bee might count on. This can lead to native bees switching to less-rewarding plants to survive, which can result in poor reproductive success and shorter life spans.
Another challenge to honey bees and native bees living near each other is the potential to exchange diseases. Bees leave behind feces when they visit flowers and plants, which can contain pathogens or parasites, and can be picked up by other bees of any species.
Through shared forage, honey bees introduce new viruses to wild bees. They also exacerbate existing infections and parasites among their colonies and pass worsened diseases to wild bees. Viruses like deformed wing virus (DWV), black queen cell virus, and Nosema easily travel between species and pose a severe threat to native bees.
One study examined black queen cell virus spread between kept bees and native species. Researchers confirmed that 90% of bumblebees collected near an infected apiary picked up the virus. This goes to show just how easily the species can transmit infections to each other.
Native bees are important pollinators, and we should do what we can to protect them.
Creating a pollinator-friendly environment in your own backyard gives native bee species diverse forage sources they’ll love. Check out our tips for naturalizing your yard, and steps you can take to attract native bees. These efforts can help reduce competition between kept bees and native ones.
Consider adding a few native bee-friendly elements to your yard. Mason and leafcutter bees love bee houses, which can be made with some simple woodwork. Bare earth patches are great for ground-nesting bees. Cavity nesting bees will create their homes in provided tree stumps or logs in no time.
Beekeepers can support native bees, too! Positioning your bees near a variety of habitats, like gardens, wooded areas, and orchards, offers all bees a great resource mix. Pay attention to your hive health, and do what you can to help manage disease and reduce spread among species.
While honey bees and native bees might not be nature’s best friends, each are valued members of the pollinator community. By doing what we can to keep our bees healthy, and providing a diverse forage landscape for all bees, we can help minimize any negative impacts on native bees.