Utah’s native bees are in trouble and fall is a great time to help them
Fuzzy, stocky, powerful and cuddly. Then Utah State University horticulture professor Sheriden Hansen threw in another unexpected trait for one of Utah’s native bees.
“It’s definitely kind of that George Costanza bee.”
If that wasn’t enough of a selling point for the humble bumblebee, one of Utah’s 1,000 native bee species, it also “loves to do the cutest thing ever: It will fall asleep in flowers, especially in dahlias.”
Utah really is the Beehive State. Southern Utah alone has approximately the same number of bee species as the entire East Coast. It’s native bees that keep the local plants growing and thriving, Hansen said, and yet they’re in trouble because of the state’s growth and urbanization.
“We're very busy building up our habitat for people. We're building homes and we're expanding,” she said. “As we do that, a lot of the times [the native bees’] habitat is lost — places for them to nest, places for them to feed.”
It’s a problem because native bees are actually better pollinators than honeybees, which aren't native to Utah. Hansen said if we lost the state’s native bees, it could devastate crops and gardens by cutting into biodiversity.
“They are constantly switching pollen between plants. By doing that, it switches up the genes in the plants a little bit,” she said. “You don't want to marry your cousin, right? Well, the plants also need that diversity as well. They need to be pollinated by plants that come from different parentage.”
And that strengthens plants to make them more resistant to disease and some pesky insects.
Research numbers from 2015 compiled by USU show that declining populations have been seen in 28% of bumblebees, 50% of leafcutter bees and 27% of mason bees.
There’s still time to turn things around. While the situation is “quite dire” for some species, overall, she said, Utah’s native bees aren’t at a critical point yet. That doesn’t mean Utahns can relax, though.
“We tend to wait until the very last minute, right? That 11th hour. We don't want to get there,” she said. “There are things that you can do.”
Utahns can help out by growing native plants — especially as the season is changing to fall.
“A lot of the time we head to the nursery in the spring and we pick out plants that all bloom in the spring,” Hansen said. “Pollinators need food sources in the spring, summer and fall. We want something that is going to bloom throughout the season.”
She recommends planting multiple of the same native plant for each season, so the bees have plenty of resources. Another thing people can do this time of year is change how they clean up their yards for winter. Hansen said to avoid cutting all the perennials back.
“Leave some of those plants to overwinter, to provide habitat for these native bees. That can really help,” she said. “In the springtime, after the bees have woken up and come out and emerge, then you can clean it up.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ciara Hulet: What else makes Utah’s native bees such good pollinators?
Sheriden Hansen: One of the magical things that happens with [native] bees is they will do this thing called buzz pollination. That's where they really get down inside that flower and they wiggle their bodies and they wiggle their wings and they buzz around in the center of the flower. That helps that pollen to come up and to stick to that bee as well. It's one of the very unique things that our native bees do that honeybees don't necessarily do.
CH: So what would happen if Utah lost its native bees?
SH: To me, it would be devastating. It could very much impact the crops that we have. In fact, farmers will set up strips in their farms for native bees to nest in – most of our native bees are ground nesting.
Mason bees are another one that you may not think about, but they are excellent pollinators for orchards. Having mason bees can improve the amount of fruit production that we have in an orchard.
And native bees are incredible pollinators when it comes to vegetable gardens. Thinking about your house and your garden, if you really want an incredible garden that is highly pollinated, we need to get native bees there.
CH: What else is threatening native bees?
SH: Insecticides sprayed in your yard can impact the bees, loss of [plant] diversity as well. Native bees have developed and co-evolved with our flowers and plants here in Utah. When we look at the bees that are here, they are very dependent on the native plants that are here as well.
People aren't planting native [plants]. When you go to the nursery and you look at those native plants, they're not as flashy, they're not as colorful as some of the hybridized plants. Also, because we are urbanizing and we are moving out into areas that haven't been built out previously, those native plant stands are being lost at the same time.
CH: What advice do you have for people having problems with unwanted bugs who also want to help bees?
SH: Make sure that we're not utilizing insecticides and pesticides just haphazardly. We do what's called integrated pest management, where we start really low on the scale if we have a pest problem. We will start with something like insecticidal soap that is not as toxic to bees. Spray in the evening when the bees aren't around the plants or wait until the plant is not in full bloom so that the bees aren't there visiting.
Sometimes we allow for a certain level of insect damage to certain plants before we will reach for an insecticide just because we don't want to damage those bees.
Stay away from insecticides that are neonicotinoids, a class of chemicals that are known to be extremely toxic to bees. One of the chemicals that is really common and very familiar is called imidacloprid. It's in a lot of systemic types of pesticides that you would put out in your yard to kind of deal with something that's munching on one of your plants. If you'll take the time to look [at the label], it will say if it’s not recommended for use around bees.
CH: What else can people do to help?
Leave nesting sites for the bees. Seventy percent of our native bees are ground nesting. Leaving some area in your yard that does not have mulch that the bees can access the soil is really, really important. That way they can get to the soil, they can dig down, they can build those nests and that population will continue year after year.