What I Didn’t Know About Bees
Summer came late and left early. A few days ago storms pounded the high country. When the clouds veiling the mountains finally parted, the peaks were crowned with newly fallen snow. It had mostly melted by the next day. At the weekend the roads were dry, the skies were blue, and the air was warm. It was almost as if the snow had never fallen. I wandered, lonely as a cloud, through the high meadows, pastures, and woodlands and was cheered by hosts of surviving flowers, although here and there were the dead or dying, mortally wounded by the cold.
A bumble bee patiently and carefully tended to a thistle blossom. The bee’s presence surprised me. I had imagined the cold would have driven the bees away but I was mistaken. I watched it for some time, until it finally flew off. Not far from the first flower I came across another thistle, this one too being attended by a bumble bee, only a larger and differently colored insect. Again I found myself surprised. I was only aware of three bee species, honey bees, invading African bees, and bumble bees. Was it possible that there were two types of bumble bees?
Utah is home to 900 bee species, over 20% of the 4,000 bee species found in the United States. I deliberately use the phrase “bee species” as these numbers are specific for bees and do not include their distant cousins the wasps, hornets, ants, and other members of the order Hymenoptera. World-wide some 19,000 species of bees have been identified and it has been estimated that as many as 10,000 additional species remain to be discovered. In a recent survey of the San Rafael desert, which covers roughly 2,000 square miles in central Utah, 316 species of bees were found. Over 40 of these species had never before been reported.
To put these bee numbers in perspective: 446 bird species have been documented in Utah, while roughly 660 have been observed in the continental United States. There are 10,000 avian species known throughout the world. There are nearly twice as many known bee species as birds. The distinction between the various apian species lie in attributes such as tongue length, the number and length of antennae segments, and the detail of and venation patterns in the wings. Those who study bees typically forego binoculars and field guides, instead requiring microscopes and detailed entomological keys.
Fewer than a dozen of these many species are honey bees, members of the Apis genus. Honey bees are not a species native to the United States. They began to be imported from Europe soon after the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts. The majority of the North American bees are native, naturally occurring species. Although far less frequently mentioned in the popular media than honey bees, these native species are of great ecological and economic significance. Many flowering trees, shrubs, and crop plants are more efficiently pollinated by native species than by the non-native honey bees. In some cases a highly specific relationship has evolved between a species of flowering plant and native bee. Without the precise species of native bee visiting its flowers and carrying its pollen to its sisters, the plant would soon disappear from the face of the earth.
I had wondered if there are two bumble bee species. There are eleven known in northern Utah alone. Differentiating between them is based on the coloration of abdominal segments and differences in thoracic markings. I now have something to watch for besides my feathered friends.