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The search for the next great bee

Aug 4, 2015

Honey bees pollinate about a third of the crops in the U.S—that’s about $15 billion of the agricultural economy. But honeybees have had a tough time lately: a combination of diseases, stress, parasites and pesticides have all hurt the honey bee population.

Scientists are starting to look at how other species of bees could help pick up the slack.

The bee world is a lot bigger than just honey bees; in fact, there are more than 20,000 species of bees in the world. Penn State researchers like Dave Biddinger are finding out that some of these unsung bees could start filling gaps left by honey bees. 

The osmia bee

His all-star that he’s studying now is a type of osmia bee called the Japanese orchard bee.

“We call them ‘JOBS’ for short, because people don’t like Latin names,” Biddinger says.

And these bees—at least in apple orchards—they’re kind of showing up honey bees.

Most other bees are solitary and don't live in hives. But researcher Dave Biddinger has found that his osmia bees will live in bee "apartments" (pictured here), though individual bees always return to the same holes.
Credit Lou Blouin

“The honey bee is a little bit lazy,” Biddinger says. “It will only maybe visit one or two flowers per minute. An osmia will do up to 15 flowers per minute. And we’ve seen with osmia that they can carry up to 100 times more pollen than what a honey bee can.”  

In fact, Biddinger says some apple farmers are finding they can forgo renting honey bees altogether. And that’s just the tip of the “other bee” iceberg.

The squash bee

Carley Miller is a grad student in the Penn State entomology department.

“Oh, look at all these bees on the Monarda! Scientifically, I appreciate them,” Miller says. “But on a personal level, I just feel giddy when I see this many bees.”

Today, she’s in the pumpkin patch looking for squash bees.

“The squash bees are like little Wall Street bees and they fly around quickly, everywhere, fast—ping, ping! They, like, barely look in a flower and then they’re off to the next one and they can’t decide what to do with themselves. And half the time, they’ll fly into you, because they’re so busy flying, and fall into a flower and they’re, like, ‘oh, ok, I’ll use this one,’” Miller says.

For a long time, nobody knew squash bees were such hard workers. In fact, pumpkin farmers would often rent honey bees, not realizing they probably already had squash bees on their farms doing most of the pollination.

And between squash bees and bumblebees, scientists say squash and pumpkin farmers can probably get by without using honey bees. It’s all part of a new strategy of diversification that entomologist Shelby Fleischer affectionately refers to as “Plan B.”

A bee community

“I think the key to remember is resilience,” Fleischer says. “So don’t just aim for any one species. Historically, there’s been a lot of emphasis on ‘let’s make honey bees our pollinator,’ and resilience would suggest that we should try and support a community of bees.”

And that is where things can get tricky. Because, for the most part, other bees don’t act like honey bees. Honey bees are freaks in the bee world. They live in a box that you can move from place to place. They reproduce like crazy. They eat practically anything.

Most other bees are actually solitary, and nest in dead trees or in the ground, so you can’t move them around. So to keep a healthy, diverse community of other bees on the farm, Carley Miller says farmers will have to start adding bee habitat. That means planting things like wildflower patches next to fields so that these other bees have something to eat year round.

Carley Miller (foreground) and Shelby Fleischer look for bees in a cucumber patch at Penn State University's research farm in State College, Pennsylvania, July 21, 2015.
Credit Lou Blouin

“So, it’s planting your floral resources,” Miller says. “Making sure you choose the right flowers that are going to come up early enough that have pollen resources, that have nectar resources, and that will finish their bloom early enough so that when all the crops are available, the bees then switch to a new food source and are doing the pollination in your crops.”

Which is not exactly an easy formula to figure out. It varies crop by crop, even region by region. That’s why, even with all this excitement over other bees, honey bee expert Maryann Frazier says we won’t be walking away from honey bees anytime soon.

“In terms of having a bee that is as versatile as honey bees, that bee doesn’t exist. It just isn’t out there,” Frazier says.

Most importantly, she says, what's good for all other bees—habitat, a diverse diet, fewer pesticides—is good for honey bees. So if you do good by one species, you do good by all of them. And they'll continue to do good by all of us.

Lou Blouin is a reporter with the environment news program, The Allegheny Front.