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The Magnificent Splendor of Native Bees

If you want to see bees, find a flowery meadow above 50 degrees F with no wind. April 23 was not one of these days. It was cold and breezy. Despite this, the session on Native Bees of Big Rock Park lead by Dr. Paulina Mena was well-attended and the bees were there for it.

Dr. Mena teaches attendees the proper bee netting technique.

Iowa has over 400 species of native bees, all better pollinators and more well-adapted to our climate than the well-known but non-native honeybee. Iowa bees have co-evolved with native Iowa plants. They are important to our Big Rock old growth savannah ecosystem.

Even better, our native bees are mild mannered, having no hives to protect. Unlike honeybees, they can sting many times but without venom, making the stings less painful. Aggressive honeybees and wasps will tag intruders with pheromones and the hive will follow them in attack mode. You’ll get none of this aggression with native bees.

Many native bees are specialized pollinators, fitting in well to their plant niches. Squash bees for example are early risers, pollinating the morning blooming squash blossoms and napping in the withered blossoms. Most native Iowa bees are buzz pollinators.

Buzz pollinators such as bumble bees and mason bees are essential for the pollination of plants with deeply held pollen. Food crops such as eggplant, tomatoes, and blueberries rely on these bees to produce fruit. These calm bees are not likely to sting. Bumble bees nest in the ground and each magnificent queen can chose the sex of each egg as she lays it. The queen will make a honey pot filled with nectar as a food storage for herself as she incubates her eggs and for the emerging young.

Our group found a beautiful, fertilized bumble bee queen looking for a nesting place. After admiring her, we released her.

It’s incredibly difficult to identify most native bees by sight. People who can do this, taxonomists, are older and retiring. Modern bee enthusiasts use DNA testing to help identify bees.

Over thirty unique species of bees who call Big Rock Park home have been identified by Dr. Mena and her students. The most prevalent bees catalogued have been Augochlora pura, a common bee that nests in rotting wood and is a walnut pollinator, Calliopsis adreneformis, a ground nesting bee and important pollinator of many flowers, including phlox, and Coelioxys modesta, a parasitic species and pollinator which nests in the soft soil in the park. Another common bee is Megachile companulae, also known as the Bellweather resin bee is a special pollinator of tall American Bellflower.

One of Dr. Mena’s exciting findings is that Big Rock Park may be the home of a formerly undiscovered species of bees! This species would be in the genus Andrena and was first found by Dr. Steve Johnson. This type of bee is an important native pollinator, especially for apples and blueberries.

Here’s a link to a presentation about the science behind discovering the bees of Big Rock.

Honeybees may be well-known but our native bees are hard working pollinators and we need them. Ways to help them in your yard are to refrain from planting pesticide treated seeds and to not burn downed wood in the early spring when the young Augochlora bees are emerging. Our park is the perfect home for them. Let’s keep it that way!

For anyone looking for a good school lesson for and video about the magnificent bees and related careers, click here.

Thank you to Marion County Community Foundation and Pella Community Foundation for sponsoring our scientists and events.

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