All species of honey bees are insects of the Old World. Before they were domesticated and used for commercial purposes around the world, they were found mostly in Asia and Africa. In 1622, things changed for the honeybees. The western honeybee was introduced to the New World, courtesy of the Europeans, which prompts the question: what insects pollinated the plants of the New World before then?
In North America, you can find a multitude of bee species aside from the honeybee, including those referred to as leafcutter bees or mason bees. But probably the most useful and best known of these species is the blue orchard bee.
What’s Known of the Blue Orchard Bee
Blue orchard bees have a lot of difference when compared to honey bees. As their name implies, they come in a black-blue shade, which may look pretty intimidating since we’re all used to the striped honey bee. They’re like the exact opposite of honeybees, which are known to form huge hives. Blue orchard bees, on the other hand, are solitary creatures, but it doesn’t mean they’re hostile to each other. This is the bee you can spot once in a while in your yard or garden, the one that’s alone and seemingly doesn’t care about its surroundings.
When spring comes, a female blue orchard bee will seek a mate, and then goes on to find a place where she can lay eggs. They are known to like small spots like tubes and holes, and inside these holes are partitions that the female bee created out of mud. In these partitions, the female bee will start laying eggs — one in each partition. A mother blue orchard bee can lay up to five eggs.
What Makes the Blue Orchard Bee Special
Blue orchard bees have been getting a lot of attention lately because apparently, they are much better pollinators than honey bees, which is cool, considering they are native to this country. What makes blue orchard bees better pollinators, according to scientists, is the fact they are solitary and the manner in which they collect pollen.
Unlike honey bees that gather pollen using their legs, blue orchard bees collect pollen with their abdomens, resulting in an increased rate of cross-pollination and pollen deposition when compared to honeybees. They also typically forage not far from their nest, unlike honey bees that tend to travel for over 60 meters.
Blue Orchard Bees as Backup Pollinators
Most crops found in the produce aisle in supermarkets are a result of bees’ pollinating capabilities, particularly honeybees. But in recent years, there has been a decline in the population of honeybees beset by an avalanche of problems, including pesticide exposure, poor nutrition, and climate change. Some bee farms have remedied this situation by using nutritional systems such as BeesVita Plus from makers Healthy Bees LLC to restore the health and lengthen the lives of honeybees.
Still, scientists and researchers have sought out ways to find a backup bee. Luckily, that special bee has been found. And yet, why hasn’t the world started domesticating blue orchard bees in the same way as honeybees?
The primary reason is that blue orchard bees are very difficult to manage — they simply wouldn’t settle in one place as what honeybees would do. Blue orchard bees don’t stay in hives and live there for generations. Even if you build a nest for a group of blue orchard bees to live in, each bee will mind its own business, and a good portion of them will fly away. It’s like employing someone who’s highly skilled, but following rules isn’t exactly his strongest point.
Researchers are observing the behavior of blue orchard bees to improve crop production, and they’ve since found that these bees can be, indeed, our backup bees if we stop treating them like honeybees. USDA’s Agricultural Research Service have scattered smaller hives in one of their farms and released blue orchard bees in it.
Although the data collected showed huge potential, only time will tell if the second generation of these blue orchard bees will actually stay in the area they were born. USDA says they will observe the bees and the crops further before the blue orchard bee is recognized as a primary pollinator.