Never mind the bee: Maryland researchers want more buzz on saving native bee species

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WASHINGTON – Although honey bees have gained national attention in an effort to “save the bees,” some Maryland entomologists want to focus on native bee species that are more endangered.

Bees are the most important pollinators on Earth, essential for the settlement of native plants and fundamental to ensuring the abundance and variety of agricultural crops.

Misinformation about which bee species to save has created a media frenzy for bee protection despite research indicating stable bee populations, experts say.

“The bee is not the bee we must save because it is not in danger,” said Dr Nathalie Steinhauer, scientific coordinator of Bee Informed Partnership Inc. and postdoctoral researcher in the entomology department of the ‘University of Maryland.

The honey bee is native to Europe, Africa and Asia. The early settlers brought these insects to the United States, where they now dominate the research and general understanding of bees.

Beekeepers have been successful in keeping the total number of bee colonies in North America stable over the past two decades, according to the Bee Informed Partnership, a coalition of researchers and laboratories established to improve the health and survival of colony d bees.

Certainly, pesticides, stress and disease still hamper the health of honey bees across the country.

But some native bee species, such as the rust-spotted bumblebee, are really endangered and often compete with bees to pollinate natural environments.

Part of the reason bees receive so much attention comes from the constant reinforcement of their importance in society.

“Culturally, other bees don’t exist,” said Sam Droege, wildlife biologist at the US Geological Survey’s Eastern Ecological Science Center in Laurel, Maryland.

“That’s why we don’t know anything about (native bee species), and then when someone does a media story, a lot of it is very short,” he said.

The Eastern Ecological Science Center is home to the Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab, which develops tools and surveys to identify native bee species.

About 4000 species of native bees reside in North America and about 430 of these species inhabit Maryland, including at least 80 kinds of land mining bees, 20 species of leaf-cutter bees, 10 types of bumblebees, plus carpenter bees, mason bees (they make mud nests) and squash bees (which live in the soil near pumpkins or squash plants).

But researching native bee species can be a daunting task, according to Jennifer Selfridge, invertebrate ecologist for the Wildlife Heritage Program at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Many native bee species are tiny and solitary, and bee sampling is a relatively new development in entomology.

“The desire is to want to put them together in one big study so that you can understand them all, but they are very different,” Selfridge said.

Selfridge said the location of the Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab in Maryland has led to more data and research on native bee species compared to other states.

Despite this, research on bee species native to Maryland lags behind research on other insects and invertebrates due to limited funding and lack of long-term data sets.

“The funding we have is generally more geared towards things that are rare, threatened, and endangered, so things that are really in trouble,” Selfridge said.

Droege said researchers often have to make rough inferences about bee species native to Maryland.

“’You can’t find them anymore’ is not a great, very nuanced survey program,” Droege said.

“This is where we are at. But the worst part is that the things that aren’t bumblebees are so small, so obscure, that we don’t even know if they were there to begin with because we are describing entirely new species that had not been described. before, ”he said.

Efforts to “save the bees” were born out of human actions, including urbanization which destroys the natural habitats of insects, including bee populations.

“I really want to stress: we know that nature changes,” Droege said. “You don’t build houses on the ground and you have positive benefits for nature. “

Maryland plays a role in endangering native bee species, as urbanization also decreases flower populations, which bees need for pollination and survival.

“And the fact that we are losing landscape to urbanization is something that is actually going to increase the impacts of climate change,” said Steinhauer.

Droege said the increased diversity and number of flowers in the Maryland landscape could help native bee species survive.

“The state… is a big landlord, manager and regulator, so you have regulations that surround a lot of things that would impact the number of flowers in the area, basically,” he said.

At the individual level, people can also have a positive impact on the future of bees.

As consumers, people can choose to support companies that make efforts to reduce environmental impacts affecting bee populations, Steinhauer said.

Although commercial beekeeping contributes to pollination and honey production, personal beekeeping can reduce the population of native bee species that compete with honey bees for pollination.

“If you get into bees because you want to save the environment, you’re not – you’re doing the opposite,” Droege said.

“Your hives don’t save the bees because the bees have disease issues and your hive is probably a disease vector, if there is one,” he said.

Declining populations of native bee species indicate a larger biodiversity crisis facing the United States and the world, scientists say.

“We are losing cash at a faster rate than ever in history,” said Steinhauer. “Bees are no exception. “

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