By Coggin Heeringa, Interpretive Naturalist, Crossroads at Big Creek, Inc.
Thanks to the Beekeepers of Door County, we have several demonstration hives at Crossroads. Thanks to our restoration efforts, our preserves also are home to native wild bees – probably more species than we even realize.
We all love honeybees. These very special insects make honey and wax. They also pollinate flowers that enable plants to make seeds, and in the process, produce many of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables that we use for food.
Honeybees are not native to North America. Colonists brought them to American colonies in the 1600s. Presumably, it took a number of years before honeybees reached Wisconsin … probably even longer to reach the Door Peninsula.
Understand that before European settlement, the Door Peninsula was heavily forested. The vibrant summer and fall wildflowers of our fields and roadsides were less common back when there were no fields and no roads. But the exquisite woodland wildflowers – think trout lily, hepatica, bloodroot and dozens more which makes our springtime so special – must have had pollinators.
Most people are familiar with our native bumblebees, but few are aware that Wisconsin is home to more than 400 species of native bees. Native bees evolved with and pollinate our native wildflowers.
Actually, many species of native bees also play a part in pollinating commercial crops like cherries and apples. Apparently, if orchards have natural vegetation nearby to provide food and shelter for native bees, fruit production increases. Pressure from native bees makes honeybees more efficient and effective when pollinating.
Do native bees look like honeybees? Some do; many don’t. Do they visit the same flowers? That depends on their size, the length of their tongues, and their methods for collecting pollen. Just as each species of plant is unique, each species of bee has unique characteristics adapted to gathering food from a specific type of flower.
Most native bees are solitary, living alone underground or else near the ground under bark or in the stalks of dead plants. They collect some nectar, but because they do not make honey, they visit flowers primarily to collect pollen. Each species seems to specialize in certain flower types and pollen-gathering strategies.
Do native bees compete with honeybees? Maybe they do when flowers are scarce due to agricultural practices, habitat destruction or perhaps, this summer, by drought. More research is required to answer that.
We at Crossroads are doing everything we can to increase the biodiversity of our wildflowers in order to increase the population of wild native bees, but ironically, any restoration efforts we make for native bees will improve the habitat for honeybees as well.
The Beekeepers of Door County will meet on Tuesday, July18, and they welcome visitors. They will begin at 6:30 p.m. with a a showcase of club equipment and then at 7:00, they will go out into the meadow to demonstrate how to harvest honey from the flow hive at Crossroads and then treat hives for mites.
Volunteer and family activities abound this week, and as always, our trails are open all day, every day free of charge.