The Buzz on Bee Research at Fairview Farm
(Note: The following article was written by Elena Suglia, RHA’s Rutgers University research assistant. Photos by Barry Rosenthal)
Bees are responsible for pollinating a third of the food we eat, but face trouble from human impacts. With the decline of honey bees and honey bee keepers, farmers are looking to fulfill pollination needs using other methods. Honey bees aren’t the only pollinators, however: wild, native bee species currently provide half of pollination services globally, and have the potential to offset the mounting difficulties and costs of using honeybees to pollinate crops.
Over the past five years, researchers from Dr. Rachael Winfree’s lab at Rutgers University have studied which native plants attract the highest abundance and diversity of native bees on pollinator restoration plantings across New Jersey. In collaboration with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, private landowners like the Raritan Headwaters Association have planted native flowers to attract native bees. Researchers visited the plantings to collect data on which bees visited which flowers and in what numbers to learn more about what bees want in a flower, what rewards different flowers can offer, and how certain bee traits match well with certain flower traits.
Many people are surprised to learn that the majority of bee species are solitary, small insects living in holes in the ground or hollow branches. Part of the reason that native bees are less commonly known is that they are not well studied compared to honey bees. Did you know that there are as many as 400 native bee species in New Jersey alone, and 4000 in the continental United States? Thirty-five species of native bees have been recorded over the past 5 years at Fairview Farm, including several types of masked bees, miner bees, and mason bees.
Despite their diversity and important contribution to pollination services, little is known about these interesting critters’ nesting behaviors, their historical abundances, and whether changes in their distribution and diversity have occurred in the recent past.
With increasing attention paid to pollinators, aided in part by President Obama’s Presidential Memorandum promoting steps to ensure pollinator health, perhaps intensifying research and conservation efforts will focus the public eye more intently on native pollinators in addition to honey bees. How can you help native bee populations flourish? Some of the best flowers to attract native bees include asters, bee balm, milkweed, mountain mint, blanket flowers, sunflowers, and tickseed. Plant these in your garden, and you will be sure to observe some native bee visitors!