Two native Osmia, or orchard bees, enjoying the cerulean blooms of Penstemon cyananthus.
The demise of my honeybees has spawned a silver lining after all: It’s opened my eyes to the wider world of native bees. The first summer with my captured swarm of “wild” honeybees, I bought a macro lens specifically to photograph them; I also bought a special pair of binoculars, Pentax Papilio, the only binoculars I could find after hours of online research with a focal length short enough that I could sit close to the hive and watch the bees go in and out. It’s not the best for watching faraway birds, but turned out to be amazing for getting a better view of things that are already pretty close up.
When my close-up vision began to deteriorate about fifteen years ago, I just let go of the need to see small things without my glasses. Consequently, I missed a lot of what was going on in the garden. Aphids, for example, until they had already done a lot of damage to a plant. But with the Papilios and the new camera lens, the world of small things opened up to me, and I was thrilled with it.
A ladybug taking off from the aging blossoms of catmint, Nepeta.
As I photographed my honeybees on all the various flowers in my drought-tolerant landscape, I found myself taking pictures of other small creatures in the same blooms, some of them really quite minuscule. Smaller than gnats, even.
I remember when Joseph came over to help me open the hive that first time, he looked at some flowers abuzz with bees and said, “Oh, nice, native bees.” It registered, but I didn’t understand it. How could he tell from where he stood what kind of bee was moving around just inches above the ground?
After three summers of photographing and observing bees, I can now tell a whole lot about which kind of bee is feeding on a flower, even from my gigantic height of five-eight. I’ve taken many photos of pollinators (honeybees, native bees, flies, beetles…) over the past few years, and I’m so busy all summer that I promise myself I’ll take some time in the winter to identify them, look up all their proper names. (My dear friend Paul calls the common names of plants and animals the “vulgar” names, and the Latin binomials the “proper” names. He’s got plenty of cred, so I go with that.)
But about a decade ago, because I’m fundamentally lazy (though curiously driven at times) I decided that I no longer need to know the names of things; it’s enough that they are here, living, and that I witness their glory, each and every unique living thing I come across. So I haven’t spent any time the past three winters learning the names of all the native bees I’ve photographed. Because something else is always above that on my To-Do List.
A native bumblebee (Bombus) in the small blue penstemons that grow between flagstones. The proper names of all the penstemons in the garden? Another story. And it turns out it’s not so easy to ID bumblebees down to species.
Chris sent me an email last spring announcing a national Pollinator Photo Contest, and so I entered some of my images. There were actually two contests, one sponsored by the Center for Food Safety, and the other by the Wild Bee Gardens app. I was pleased to learn that I won in both contests, with different images of a native leafcutter bee, Megachile sp. So there is half of the proper name that I have learned. The app creator also wanted to use some of the other images I submitted in the new version of the app, so I happily consented to that.
And then I checked out the app.
It is elegant, and brilliant. And the introductory video changed my life.
My purpose felt extinguished when my honeybee hive died. Through the first half of this year, I’ve felt more and more bereft in their absence. It is beyond noticeable; it is flagrant. Sure, some honeybees have finally arrived, mid-June, in my garden. But they’re not my honeybees. My honeybees would have been smothering with caresses all the flowers in the yard as they bloomed, from February’s croci on through March’s (absurdly early) fruit trees, April’s daffodils and tulips, May’s irises and penstemons, and June’s profusion. As it is, yes, they’re coming, slowly growing from a few into hundreds, thousands; feeding on the wild pink roses, Buddleia alternifolia, Gallardia…
Gallardia, Salvia, and Penstemon with the new birdbath, a gift.
Wild rose, Rosa woodsii, blooms profusely, hosting many species of pollinators during its short bloom cycle.
Yet another Osmia on the wild ancestor of the common butterfly bush, Buddleia alternifolia.
This shrub native to north-central China lives up to its common name of “fountain butterfly bush” with its arching sprays of richly scented flowers, attracting many species of butterflies including this western tiger swallowtail…
… and this elusive Monarch.
Last year my entire yard was loud with the sounds of bees, especially honey; now it buzzes discretely with the wingbeats of native bees. And my eyes are opened. I learned from the app that there are around 4000 species of native bees in North America, and they are responsible for pollinating far more of our native and staple food plants than are the introduced honeybees. For example, blueberries, green peppers, and tomatoes are best pollinated by bumblebees.
And that raises the question of neonicotinoids. I jumped on the “decline of the honeybee” bandwagon even before I found my swarm. I’ve preached about neonicotinoids poisoning honeybees since science first suggested the connection. I’ve sweated about the alarming decline of honeybees, and I never once wondered what that implied about native bees. (As a self-proclaimed naturalist, I feel pretty stupid about that.)
Fortunately, someone else did, and she pursued the question to its natural conclusion: a digital field guide to the native bees of North America. Celeste Ets-Hokin, an Oakland biologist, conceived and created the Wild Bee Gardens app, an elegant and intuitive research tool for gardeners, farmers, and others interested in preserving pollinators. With cross-references among native bee genera and the plants that host them, fabulous native bee photographs (including, in the newest version coming soon, some of mine), and extensive written guides on their ecology, lifecycles, anatomy, behavior, and how to create a wild bee garden, the app is a wealth of information, a whole college course in one package, and an inspiring creative work. It’s holding my feet to the fire, and making it fun, once again, to learn the names of things.