UNION — A tranquil walk in the garden can quickly become a questionable experience when the all-too-familiar thunderous drone of a bumble bee fills the air.
Few things compare in intensity to a bee’s single-minded pursuit of nectar. But take heed, bees provide an essential ecosystem service: pollination. Without pollination, 30 percent of crops and 85 percent of flowering plants on Earth would cease to produce fruit.
You may be familiar with honey bees, bumble bees, and carpenter bees, but there are approximately 4,000 bee species native to North America, plus a smattering of introduced workers like the honey bee.
Honey bees are a crowd favorite thanks to their versatility and sweet combs of honey, and they are responsible for pollinating around 18 percent of North American crop plants. Tasks are performed by bees depending on their age. According to Union beekeeper Jean Pennas, newly hatched workers use their wax glands to expand the hive. As the bees age they perform other jobs such as removing their dead comrades from the living quarters (honey bees only live about 6 weeks).
The last job a bee performs in its lifetime is the most dangerous: foraging for pollen and nectar. A myriad of dangers lurk behind friendly flowers, and bees might be picked off at any moment by hungry birds or even other bugs, like dragonflies. The brave workers go out each day and come home with pollen and nectar, the latter of which will be turned into honey when the bees add enzymes and fan the mixture with their wings to evaporate most of the water.
The bees intend the honey for themselves and their young, but a healthy hive can produce 80-200 lbs., more honey than it needs. It is this surplus that beekeepers harvest for use in our kitchens.
The honey bee’s native North American neighbors do not produce honey, but they still provide the essential service of pollination. Honey bees are generalists and can pollinate a wide range of flowers, but the native bees have an advantage when it comes to many native North American flowers like blueberries, cranberries, and tomatoes.
These plants have structure that requires a specific type of pollination — “buzz pollination” — that honey bees do not know how to perform. Greenhouse tomatoes, for example, are primarily pollinated by a North American bee called the “impatient” bumble bee, and blueberries are a favorite of the Southeastern blueberry bee. Squash plants like melon and pumpkin don’t require buzz pollination, but the native squash bee is still more efficient than the honey bee at pollinating these plants. The squash bee and plant have coevolved so that their schedules are exactly aligned, and the squash bee arrives at its flowers right when they open, before any other species have had a chance to stop by.
While honey bees are the “jack of all trades,” these North American bee species have specialized tools for specific jobs, and together, they fill our fields with the fruits of their labor.
Hannah Spencer is a Clemson University student and a summer intern at the Piedmont Physic Garden.