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Bees: a vital element in the ecosystem

Once upon a time the birds and the bees, they buzzed around hither and thither, picking up pollen, taking some to their young and leaving some here and there.

Some of the pollen landed on the stigma of a flower. From this, a seed was produced. But some of the pollen went home with honey bees to feed the young back in the hive. Other solitary bees took the pollen back to their own little cells, made to feed one baby bee. One of these cells was in the stem of a flower. Another cell was inside a reed. Two other bees had their nests buried under the ground; one nest six inches under ground, the other buried three feet deep.

Then a fire came to the land, much like the Little Sand Fire. What become of these native bees that helped pollinate and make seeds and fruits and food that we all eat? What happens to bees when wildfire sparks and spreads across a land?

This relationship between bees and wildfire is what Byron Love has spent the last couple of years researching. Love is a biological science technician, studying insects, at the USDA Bee Biology and Systematics Laboratory in Logan, Utah.

Love explained that the first question to be asked in any discussions of bees is, “What is a bee?”

“Understanding of bees is limited in general. It’s important to understand what a bee is or isn’t,” Love said, continuing, “One of the fundamental misconceptions people have is all bees hang out in huge colonies and have a queen. That is atypical in bee behavior and a rather recent evolution in social bees.”

Love continued to explain that most bees exhibit solitary behavior. This behavior is on a continuum: on one end there is the most social bee, the honey bee, on the other end is a species of a native bee. These solitary bees act extremely different than honey bees and are much more docile, since they have less to gain in a fight.

Love described the behavior of a solitary bee. Most often, he said, the female will mate, then begin to gather things for making a nest. There could be one to 15 cells in each nest. The nests might be made out of straw, reeds, in cracks, using mud or burrowed in the ground at varying depths depending on the species of bee. The female bee will collect enough pollen and nectar to feed one offspring. Once she has done this, she places this food source in the cell and closes it up. That is her last contact with her offspring.

“She will do this again and again until her life expires,” Love said.

The bee will then emerge next spring. Bees will mate, the male will die off, and the female will build a nest.

These native bees are the most important group when one considers the insect’s role as a pollinator.

The question then returns: What affect will a wildfire, such as the Little Sand Fire, have on a bee population?

“What we found is that bees can survive wildfire,” Love said. He explained that since most bees nest underground, as long as their nests are below depths that fire will heat soil to a lethal temperature, the bees will survive the direct, mortal impact of the fire.

But, there is a caveat: The bees will survive as long as their food source is not wiped out, as long as the year following a fire, there are wildflowers that bloom. Love said that following most low-intensity fires there is a flush of wildflowers, improved vegetation and soil in the area. So, after these fires, much like the Little Sand Fire, the bees will survive.

“However, if it’s a super hot fire, because of the effects of fire suppression, that could change things,” Love said. The temperatures would be too high for the bees nesting underground to survive.

Love said it’s not fire that is the main threat to bees, instead, it is humans and the development that follows in their path.

“The loss of habitat, the loss of resource,” Love explained, is a real threat to bees. “We take away flowers, bees aren’t able to inhabit an ecosystem.”

Archuleta County Extension Agent Liz Haynes agreed that loss of habitat is the biggest threat to bees. However, Haynes explained that there are four additional areas being studied as potential reasons for the decline in honey bees being seen throughout North America.

The first is pathogens, two main viruses that are causing bees to die. The virus inhibits the bees from synthesizing protein. Haynes said that there are no noticeable signs that the bee has been affected.

The second is parasites. Haynes explained that the parasites are transported by mites, and you can see them on the back or abdomen of bees. The parasite causes the honey bees to die in the winter. Right now, Haynes said that, on average, beekeepers are seeing 30 percent of their hive populations succumb to this.

The third cause of death is fungus, nosema. “It is a spore that the bees breathe and digest,” Haynes said. The fungus gets in the eggs causing the bees either not to develop or to do so with malformation.

The fourth cause of death is the ease with which all the above are spreading. “Because of the need for pollinators, there are rent-a-bee services,” Haynes said. Colonies of bees are sent across state lines and large expanses of country to help with pollination but, as they travel, they may be carrying parasites, mites, fungus and a virus.

However, both Love and Haynes said there are ways for people to help increase local bee populations.

The first way is to become educated about bees, their behaviors and their ecosystem.

Planting beneficial plants and flowers in the yard is a another good way to help bees. According to Haynes, native plants are four times more likely than non-native plants to attract native bees, and native plants generally support three times as many species of butterflies and moths as do introduced plants.

Haynes made the following list of beneficial nectar and pollen plants for bees that grow in the area:

Trees and shrubs: blue mist spirea, cotoneasters, hawthorns, lilacs, mahonia, mock oranges, redbud, sand cherry, serviceberry, sumac and willows.

Fruit trees: apple, apricot, cherry, crabapple, peach and pear.

Herbs: basil, borage, hyssop, lavender, mints, rosemary, thyme and winter savory.

Crops and vegetables: alfalfa, corn, cucumbers, melons and squash.

Perennials: asters, bee balm, catmint, campanulas, coreopsis, gaillardias, mums, roses, vernonia and yarrows.

Wild plants: chicory, clover (alsike, red, sweetclover and white), dandelion, goldenrod and milkweed.

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