Bees are indispensable pollinators, vital to the health of wild flowering plants and food crops alike. But “bee” is a big category – holding everything from buzzing hives of honeybees, to round fuzzy bumblebees, to metallic blue mason bees, and more.
We know that saving the bees is important. But which bees need our protection, and how can we help them?
Most people think of one species when they think about bees, the European honeybee.
The first animal many of us think of when we think “bee” is the European honeybee, also known as the western honeybee, Apis mellifera. These black-and-yellow striped insects live in densely populated hives that turn pollen and nectar into the honey you buy at the farmer’s market or grocery store.
The western honeybee is common in the U.S. because this is the species kept by beekeepers. Domestic honeybee hives are important pollinators of some specific crops, including almonds and lemons, but they are not native to America. They were imported here from Europe in the 17th century, and have worked as partners to humans in agriculture ever since.
There are thousands of species of wild bees, and they are vital pollinators as well.
But honeybees are far from the only species of bee here. There are over 4,000 species of native bee that lived in America before the honeybees arrived, and that still live here today.
Our native bee species are a magnificent kaleidoscope of diversity. They range from less than 2mm in length (the world’s smallest bee, Perdita minima), to over an inch in size (the shiny black common carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica), and everywhere in between. Their colors range from familiar black and yellow to the magnificent blue of the orchard mason bee, Osmia lignaria.
We haven’t even yet discovered all the wonders our native bees have to offer. About 1/10th of the bees in the United States aren’t named or described by science yet.
But no matter how big or how small, whether they’ve been discovered or not, every native bee has a job as a pollinator.
Native bees are excellent pollinators of many crops, including squash, tomatoes, cherries, blueberries, and cranberries. They’re also often specialized pollinators of our wild flowering plants – the plants they evolved alongside.
The rusty-patched bumblebee is an endangered species of native bee.
Photo by BeeBalm, USFWS Midwest Region via Flickr | Public Domain
Perdita minima is the world's smallest bee at less than 2mm in length.
Photo by John Ascher | Used by permission
The American bumblebee is threatened by habitat loss.
Photo by Hans | Pixabay.com
Honeybees aren’t endangered but have faced serious annual losses
We have good data about the health of domestic honeybee populations, because beekeepers closely manage their hives. That means we have a first-hand window into the destructive power of “colony collapse disorder,” a phenomenon where a honeybee hive will suddenly lose most of its workers.
American beekeepers lost nearly half of their hives to colony collapse in the 2022 growing season. Since colony collapse was first detected in 2006, beekeepers have struggled to rebuild their colonies each year in order to continue pollinating crops and producing honey.
The collapse of hives each winter is a frustrating loss of insect life, and a serious blow to beekeepers’ livelihoods – but globally, honeybees are not endangered. There are more honeybee hives on the planet now than there ever have been before.
A number of wild bee species are endangered and need more protections
More than 700 of our native U.S. bee species are on the decline.
That includes the rusty patched bumblebee, whose population plunged 90% before it was placed on the endangered species list. In order to ensure the rusty patched bumblebee’s survival, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs to protect its critical habitat.
Unfortunately, the American bumblebee is a prime candidate for the endangered species list. This bee has seen a 90% drop in its numbers since 2000 and has disappeared from eight states.
The full list of native bees that need our help is a long one. The Gulf Coast solitary bee, the macropis cuckoo bee and the sunflower leafcutting bee are just a few species that are now rarely seen.
Protecting bees of all stripes is a good thing to do – but “saving the bees” doesn’t mean simply creating more honeybee hives.
Honeybees and wild bees share many threats, and would benefit from many of the same solutions
Bees are threatened by toxic pesticides, habitat loss, and climate change.
A class of pesticides called neonicotinoids is particularly devastating to all bees. Honeybees exposed to these chemicals face uncontrollable shaking, paralysis and death. Scientists haven’t directly tested the impacts of neonics on all the thousands of species of native bees in the U.S., but blue orchard bees exposed to neonicotinoids as larvae produced 20% fewer offspring than unexposed bees. Researchers also found that neonics harm baby bumblebee brains.
Another thing honeybees and wild bees share is that they need nectar and pollen to survive. Healthy habitat full of flowering native plants is vital to the health of bee populations.
Native bees are especially vulnerable to habitat loss. Some native bees and flowers are so specifically adapted to one another that the bees visit only their partner plant, and the plant is pollinated only by their partner bee. That means one of the best ways we can protect the amazing diversity of bees in our country is to protect and regrow the native plants in their habitat.
What you can do to save the bees
Cutting back on pesticides, protecting critical habitat, and confronting the climate crisis can all go a long way to protect every kind of bee – domestic honeybees and wild native bees alike.
As bee habitat is carved up to make way for sprawling suburbs and other development, bees lose food and nesting sites critical to their survival. You can help protect bees in your state by calling on your governor to support cultivating native plants and wildflowers on public lands.
Tell your governor: Support bee-friendly habitat
Senior Director, Conservation America Campaign, Environment America
Steve directs Environment America’s efforts to protect our public lands and waters and the species that depend on them. He led our successful campaign to win full and permanent funding for our nation’s best conservation and recreation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund. He previously oversaw U.S. PIRG’s public health campaigns. Steve lives in Sacramento, California, with his family, where he enjoys biking and exploring Northern California.