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The buzz on bees

Sometimes you hear them before you see them. You may even be afraid of them. But the more you know about bees, the more you can appreciate these unique insects and how they provide us humans with much more than just honey!

Bees may be black, brown, or banded with white, yellow, or orange stripes. All bees are covered with hair, but some have more hair than others. They are specialized insects called pollinators that gather nectar and pollen from flowers. As pollinators, they play a very important role in ecosystems worldwide.

Cultivated bees and native bees

When we think of bees, we usually think of honeybees. They make the sweet honey we eat and the beeswax we use to make candles and other products. Honeybees are considered "cultivated bees," as humans who want to use them for honey and beeswax production have usually brought them into an area from another part of the world. But did you know that there are more than 4,000 species of "native bees" in the United States? Native bees are those that have always lived in an area and are able to survive without help from humans. These bees don’t make honey or beeswax that we can use, but they do pollinate many of our plants and food crops. They do this so much that they are called the "super pollinators."

The first thing a worker honeybee does when she hatches is to turn right around and clean her cell for the next egg.
A single bee can collect enough nectar to make 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey.
The leafcutter bee is the major pollinator of alfalfa.
Humans have been using honeybees for their honey needs for over 3,000 years.
Orchid bees are the most colorful bees. They have brilliant iridescent colors of green, blue, and red. The males visit orchid flowers.
Native bees have the ability to buzz so hard that they cause flowers with tiny holes in them to release their pollen. Cultivated honeybees do not know how to "buzz pollinate."
California is said to have about 1,500 native bee species.
Bees’ eyes see shorter wavelengths—blues and purples, as well as yellow.
As the commercial honeybee industry declines due to Colony Collapse Disorder, it is more important than ever to have backyard beekeepers maintaining feral honeybees. Many apprentice and beginning beekeeper classes are offered at nurseries locally.
Long, overgrown grasses create a perfect habitat for nesting and overwintering native bees, and flowering weeds are a staple nectar and pollen source for them. Keep in mind: most native bees are solitary and do not sting readily.
Most people have no idea that the sustainability of food as we know it is so tightly linked with the health of pollinators like bees, butterflies, and beetles. Share what you know!
Buy organic and lower the demand for crops produced using pesticides, and reduce the overall application (over one MILLION pounds yearly) of these chemicals in the US. This alone will help pollinators like bees, butterflies, and beetles.

The San Diego Zoo’s Insect House, just down the path from the Petting Paddock in the Children’s Zoo, is an area abuzz with wonder! Terrariums set into the walls showcase stick insects, leafcutter ants, roaches, beetles, scorpions, and spiders, giving you a rare opportunity to marvel at the planet’s spineless wonders. Plans for a beehive for a small observation colony of western honeybees are currently in the works.

San Diego Zoo Global is committed to helping pollinators recover. On your next visit to the Zoo, stop by the Pollinator Garden near the west entrance to Elephant Odyssey and see which pollinators are putting in an appearance. The space serves as a waystation dedicated to helping sustain pollinators by providing a steady supply of pesticide-free nectar and host plants, as well as suitable living spaces for native bees. A large, wooden native bee house structure provides holes for solitary native species like mason and leafcutter bees to nest in. Perhaps your visit will pollinate your mind with ideas on how you can help pollinators around your own home.

You may have heard of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the rapid loss of entire honeybee colonies. A dramatic decline in these pollinators could severely hurt our food supplies. The reasons for the decline are still unclear, but it is believed that the use of pesticides, the types of crops we grow, disease from mites and fungus, and the stress of moving hives long distances for farming might all be damaging honeybee populations. It seems that beekeepers raising bees with organic methods and keeping them in permanent bee yards are not having as much trouble.

Luckily, CCD has not affected native solitary bees. This is good news for us. If honeybees were ever to no longer meet our pollination needs, native bees could be raised to supplement or replace them. Studies have shown it would only take 500 blue orchard bees to do the job of 40,000 honeybees! Many more questions need to be answered and research is ongoing, but it’s nice to know that the native bees we tend to take for granted might one day play an even bigger role in our survival.

What can you do for bees? Try to avoid using pesticides. Plant diverse, native plants in your garden. Provide bee nesting and egg-laying sites. Provide sheltered, undisturbed areas where native bees can hibernate or overwinter. No yard or garden? No problem—you can still be part of the solution by installing an inexpensive “bee block” for solitary bees to nest in.