In recent weeks, there have been several news reports concerning the large scale devastation of honey bee colonies this past winter throughout the Northeast. While these losses are described as catastrophic by those that rely on these insects for the production of certain agricultural crops, other individuals note that the honey bee has only a minimal impact on the Adirondack environment, and a few may profess that a serious decline in honey bee numbers could have a positive effect on some of the native species of bees that reside within the Park.
There are several species of honey bees, and all have been introduced into North America. Honey bees get their name from the thick, sweet, amber fluid which they make after collecting nectar from certain flowers. Along with targeting apple blossoms and a few other flowering ornamental trees and shrubs in spring, the honey bee concentrates its time during the summer foraging in open fields and meadows, especially where clover abounds. As cooler weather sets in, this highly social insect seeks the shelter afforded by the hive and huddles in this enclosure in an attempt to prevent itself from freezing to death.
As a general rule, the honey bee has a difficult time surviving in the Adirondacks because winters tend to be too long and harsh. Also, the landscape in our region is too heavily forested for this insect. The large patches of clover, and meadows of goldenrod and other flowering plants that this insect strongly prefers are few and far between in our wilderness woodlands.
However, the Adirondacks is not without bees, as there are well over a hundred native species of bees that exist in the Park. While these insects are easily mistaken for the honey bee, their life histories differ greatly. Unlike the highly social honey bee, native bees are far more solitary. Additionally, many native species prefer to live underground and are referred to as digger bees. Shortly after the female emerges from the pupa stage of its life cycle, it mates and begins to seek out an appropriate sandy spot in which to excavate a narrow burrow for its nest. Each species has a specific time of the growing season when it is active, as these insects, like black flies and deer flies have only a limited period of several weeks in which to carry out the egg laying stage of their life cycle.
Although native bees collect nectar and pollen from various flowers, they fail to convert this material into honey as do the honey bees. Food gathered during foraging excursions is usually fashioned into a globular wad and placed alongside a fertilized egg in a small chamber within their earthen shelter.
After the egg hatches, the larva feeds on this carbohydrate and protein enriched deposit as it passes through various immature stages in its metamorphic cycle. Eventually, the developing bee reaches a pre-programmed point when it becomes dormant in preparation for winter. While some species of bees pass the winter as larvae, a few develop into pupa and then emerge as an adult, yet fail to exit the nest until thawing soil conditions prompt them to return to an active state the following spring.
While many native bees make their nest in the soil, some construct a shelter in a piece of dead wood. These bees also tend to be solitary, yet still depend on flowering plants for food.
Our bee fauna is far more complex than most people could imagine. Some species are known to lay their eggs in the nests of other bees, just as the cowbird parasitizes the nests of other birds. Some bee species may seem to be quite social, with many individuals seen congregating in one small spot on a sunny hillside in late spring, yet most of these are just solitary bees that have elected to place their nests only an inch or two away from the nest of a neighbor.
When the honey bee became well established across our continent over the past few centuries, it is believed to have out-competed some native species for pollen and nectar. While many bee species have their own, unique ecological niche, others are more general, and their feeding preferences overlap with the honey bee.
Not much research has been done on the impact that the honey bee has had on our native bees, yet when any form of life invades the domain of another, it is bound to have some negative consequences on some components of the established fauna.
As honey bee numbers drop, our native bees could experience a welcome period of resurgence. Yet, because of the limited numbers of honey bees that were able to subsist in the Park, the only noticeable outcome of this honey bee die-off will probably be in the elevated price of honey.
Photo: Augochlora pura, one of the Halicids, or sweat bees by Ellen Rathbone.