Nature’s Favorite Pollinators: Bees at Reid Park Zoo

WHERE WOULD WE BE WITHOUT BEES?

Ever stop to consider how plants reproduce? They can’t get together to fertilize like animals can. Instead, they produce flowers and use outside “helpers” to transfer pollen (sperm) to ovary (where the eggs are). As a bee moves from flower to flower, some of the pollen she has collected from the flower’s anthers (male parts) on her furry body and legs rubs off on a stigma, the flower’s female part, which is connected by a tube to the ovary. This is called pollination. The helpers are rewarded with sweet nectar. The fertilized eggs become seeds, which can then grow into new plants.

The types of flowers that plants produce are no accident. They display certain colors, shapes, sizes, and aromas to attract particular “helpers.” Other than wind, which doesn’t care, pollinators range from bats to butterflies. There are even some stinky flowers that smell like something is rotting. The pollinator? Flies! But far and away the most widespread and prolific pollinators are BEES. In fact, one out of every three food items we eat relies on bees.

Now, here’s some more awesome news: here in southern Arizona we live in one of the three Bee Capitals of the world! The other two are in deserts of Israel and Africa. We are surrounded by stupendous bee biodiversity. Almost all of our native bees are “solitary.” Each female makes her hole in the ground or in woody stalks and branches to lay her eggs. The largest in our area is the carpenter bee, a gentle giant. The smallest is the tiny perdita. In between are hundreds of different species.

The bee that is most familiar to people is the honey bee. They’re called “social bees” because they live and work communally, creating hives which the “queen” supplies with eggs. And together these bees produce a lot of honey. However, you may be surprised to learn that they are NOT native to North or South America. They were brought here, along with many familiar plants and animals, by early settlers from Europe. For centuries, they have been a mainstay of beekeepers, orchards, and gardeners.

The organization of the hive consists of the queen who lays over a thousand eggs per day; the drones (males), having hatched from unfertilized eggs, who mate with virgin queens; the workers (females), who care for the hive and the nursery; and the foraging/scouting workers who are also females. Only the females have stingers. The stinger is actually a modified ovipositor (egg-laying organ) and is barbed.

A swarm, basically, is made up of traveling, hiveless bees. One is formed when the queen of a hive ages and her egg production slows down. The hive chooses a new, young queen to replace her. The old queen leaves the hive with a group of support bees in search of a favorable location to build a new hive. It’s an amazing process. When the queen gets tired, she lands on, for example, a branch. All the other members of her retinue land on and around her and around and on top of one another, creating a writhing, humming mass. They stay in that location for perhaps three or four days. During that time, a few individual bees go forth to find potential hive sites. When each returns, she does a “bee dance” to convey what she has found. Ultimately, one bee does a sufficiently convincing dance. At that point they all disengage themselves from one another and fly off together to build their new hive.

Generally, the bees of a swarm do not pose a threat to humans. They’re busy seeking a new hive site. It’s only the defenders of an actual hive that are dangerous.

In 1956, a strong species of African honey bee, well adapted to the tropical climate, was imported by Brazil to increase its honey production. Subsequently 26 swarms escaped and expanded throughout South America and northward.

In 1990 the African honey bees entered the southwestern U.S. Over time they have hybridized with our European honey bees, creating what is known as Africanized honey bees. In our region virtually all honey bees are now the Africanized variety.

This is significant because these bees do everything their earlier counterparts do, but to a greater degree. Think bees on steroids. That seems like a good thing, and it is for pollination and honey production, but there is a big drawback. Because of their fierce defense of the hive, they have been nicknamed “killer bees.” Actually, the sting of one Africanized honey bee is no worse than that of its European counterpart, but if the defenders of the hive perceive that you are a threat, they attack en masse and can chase you for up to a quarter of a mile. The toxicity of a hundred or more stings can be deadly!

That doesn’t make them “bad” bees. They’re just doing their job to keep the queen and hive safe. In fact, the bees you may encounter on the flowers in your garden are not hive defenders. They have their own job to do, pollinating. Feel free to get up close to check them out without worry. If a bee decides to check YOU out, don’t panic and flail your arms. That will only make the bee think you’re trying to kill her, and then you may very well get stung. It’s not in her best interests to sting you because she will probably lose her life as a consequence. Her stinger generally gets pulled out of her along with a chunk of her abdomen.

In recent years our nation has experienced a shocking decline in honey bees (as well as bumble bees and many solitary bees). Beekeepers have suddenly found all their bees dead or missing, a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). The most significant culprit appears to be a particular type of neuro-active insecticide called “neonicotinoids” which attack the nervous system. It doesn’t immediately kill bees, but it interferes with their flying and navigational abilities, and the tainted pollen they bring back to share with the hive has a cumulative effect like a slow poison, eventually incapacitating all the bees. Virtually all corn and a large percentage many other crops grown in the U.S. use this type of insecticide.

Human behavior, from chemical use to habitat destruction to climate change, has and continues to impose huge threats on these busy workers. Education is key to understanding what we are putting at risk. You might say our own lives depend on it!

The Pollinator Garden at the Reid Park Zoo is an excellent way to learn about the critically important roles played by all of our pollinators and how you can help keep them healthy and protected. Like everything on the grounds of the Zoo, it is designed to promote both human and animal welfare. And it’s good to know that the grounds and habitats in the Reid Park Zoo expansion will provide even more habitat, food, and shelter for our busy but underappreciated native pollinators.

Originally published at http://reidparkzooexpansion.org on May 24, 2021.

Advocating for the Reid Park Zoo expansion. Not affiliated with Reid Park Zoo, The Reid Park Zoological Society, or The City of Tucson Parks and Recreation.

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