Hanging with a Bad Crowd: Domestic Bees and their Wild Counterparts

by Scott Smith

Barb! sent me an e-mail about a colony of honey bees in her neighbor’s woodpile which led me to look into what a person should do when they find a wild colony which led me to an interesting article on the role wild bees play in pollination.

When honey bees interact with wild native bees, they are up to five times more efficient in pollinating sunflowers than when native bees are not present, according to a new study by a pair of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and UC Davis.

FIVE times! That’s a lot of efficiency. When I first started reading the article I thought that the reasoning would have something to do with the secret language of bees… you know, a domestic bee meets a wild bee and the wild bee does a little dance and gives the domestic the lowdown on the good local flora, but no. It turns out that the domestic bees are simply avoiding the wild bees. It’s hard to say if the domestic bee is a snob or afraid, but either way, the avoidance is what works.

Now, this big difference is all happening in a commercial farming setting. The study was done on a sunflower seed farm and on sunflower seed farms there are rows of girl sunflowers and rows of boy sunflowers. Bees all have specialized jobs. Some of the bees collect nectar and some of the bees collect pollen. So a bee left to its own will just go right down one row and will rarely switch from boy to girl sunflower. Enter the wild bee and the domestic bee hightails it on out of its way. TA DA! The domestic bee finds a safe place to land on a flower it wouldn’t, through it’s normal job description, ever have a reason to land on.

So, it’s in a farmer’s best interest to maintain some wild habitat amongst his (or her) regular crops because:

“Growers can throw more and more honey bees out there, but they’re not going to get more pollination if the bees visit only one of the cultivars,” Kremen said. “Wild bees make the honey bees more skittish so they move more frequently between the different cultivars. Each time they move, they have the possibility of transporting the pollen between the rows.”

Considering the big scare at the beginning of this particular growing season regarding disappearing honey bees and how we’ll basically end up eating bread and water without sufficient pollination I think Barb!’s neighbor should consider leaving the bees alone or paying a professional to move them to a spot where they can be useful to us.

Wild bees make honey bees better pollinators