Where have all the native bees gone?
Blue Orchard Bee

This body of work began a year ago when I recognized how few bumblebees I was seeing—compared to when I was a young girl, having spent my summers racing through clover-laden grasses dodging the bees to avoid getting stung.

The research and discovery began….first learning a bit about honey bees, then I focused on the group of bees I knew very little about—our native bees!   I had no idea there were so many varieties of bumble bees, sweat bees and miner  bees, all native.

During the evolution process, plants began to produce flowers w male and female structures, called anthers and stigmas respectively.   Pollen which contains the reproductive cells, needs to be physically transported from the anthers of the flowers to the stigmas, by insects another animals.  So we need those bees, butterflies, birds and bats to pollinate our crops!

Only the female bees are pollinators and some have a structure on their legs, called a basket for collecting pollen;  The bee combs grains of pollen into each of the baskets every time she visits a flower.  Some bees collect pollen from the hair on their abdomens.  During a collection trip a bee may visit 50 to 100 flowers.

Our native bees are often solitary nesters, preferring holes in the ground or in pieces of wood.  Franklin’s bumblebee hasn’t been seen in Oregon and California since 2006 and is almost certainly gone for good. The Western Bumblebee is listed on the endangered species list and is rarely seen. These bees are also effected by diseases and mites.

The bee is vital to the pollination process of over 1/3 of our fruits and vegetables. Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops, which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition, are pollinated by bees. (1) Insect pollinators contribute $29 billion to US Farm income, with native bees contributing $4-6 billion.(2)

US National Agriculture Statistics show a honey bee decline from about 6 million hives in 1947 to 2.4 million hives in 2008, a 60% reduction. Changing from meadows to lawns significantly reduced bee habitat.  A 2014-15 annual survey of beekeepers showed that approximately 5,000 beekeepers reported a bee loss of 42.1% last year. (3)  Our beekeepers tell us such losses are not sustainable year after year.

Our native bees are becoming more critical to the pollination of our food crops, as scientists sort out what is happening to our honeybee populations.   Native bees feed on nectar, primarily as a source of energy, and pollen, mostly for protein and other nutrients. Most of the pollen collected by bees is used to feed the larvae.

The most dramatic example of the effects of loss of pollinators from insecticides and habitat loss,  comes from the apple and pear orchards of south west China.  In recent years, farmers have been forced to hand-pollinate their trees, carrying pots of pollen and paintbrushes with which to individually pollinate every flower, and using their children to climb up to the highest blossom.  (4)

Let’s face it – native bees and honey bees need our help.   Here are some actions you can take: 

  1. Plant a meadow using a wide variety of native plants and flowers!  Even a small spot will help improve the quality of diet for our bees and improve their immunity. 
  2. Choose to grow plants free of neonicitinoid-based insecticides, which is  common for large commercial plant growers in the U.S.  The insecticides assure we have “perfect plants”, but are a neurotoxin to pollinators and cause the bees to exhibit erratic behavior, and to loose their ability to find their way back to their hives.  This class of insecticide knocks out the bees immune responses. 
  3. Encourage your local plant nursery to stock neonicitinoid-free plants; the European Union has banned this classification of insecticides and the data is still out about the effectiveness of this change. 
  4. Tell your legislators to prioritize the funding of  pollinator research to support our farmers.

Recognize the solutions are complicated and we will need to address the habitat, the reduction of chemical exposure and improvement of healthy forage for our bees to regain their health.

Thanks for choosing to be a part of the solutions to protect our bees. Remember to “Plant a Meadow!” 


(1) greenpeace.org  “Bees in Crisis”

(2) Insect pollinators contribute …Cornell Chronicle, May 22, 2012

(3)   “Colony Loss 2014 – 2015: Preliminary Results.” The Bee Informed Partnership (13 May 2015).

(4) China dialogue.net “Decline of bees forces China’s apple farmers to pollinate by Hand  2/10/2012