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What's in Flight

April, 2019

The park’s most precious pollinators are the bees.  And in April, they emerge from their nests in pursuit of pollen and nectar for themselves and their young. These ‘Buccaneers of Buzz’  (as the poet Emily Dickinson called them) inadvertently distribute pollen (the plant’s equivalent of sperm) to the female parts of a plant, stimulating the creation of seeds and the continuation of the species.

1 Brown-belted Bumble Bee on Lavender pl

Brown-belted Bumble Bee on Lavender plant

Photo: Banford Weissmann

The other pollinators in the park are the hummingbirds, beetles, flies and the butterflies. But as Rich Hatfield, senior conservation biologist at the Xerces Society says: ‘Bees are the keystone species.’

2 European Honey Bee Banford Weissmann.j

European Honey Bee

Photo: Jeffrey B. Evans

Because we are so attuned to seeing hive-dwelling Honey Bees in the media, it maybe a surprise to learn that there are over 4,000 types of bee in the US. They come in many colors and sizes; from large black Carpenter Bees to medium-sized iridescent blue ones and metallic-green, often gnat-sized Sweat Bees. ‘Sweat Bees like drops of sweat off humans. We think it is the salt and hydration they are seeking’ says Dr Jerome Rozen, curator emeritus of the bee collection at the American Museum of Natural History. 

3 green Sweat Bee Gerald Carter.jpg

Green Sweat Bee

Photo: Gerald Carter

4 blue Sweat Bee  Bee Bob Peterson.jpg

Blue Sweat Bee

Photo: Bob Peterson

5 Bi-colored Sweat Bee Julio Sharp.jpg

Bi-colored Sweat Bee

Photo: Julio Sharp

Dr Rozen estimates there are 78 species of bees in Manhattan. And 70 percent of those are solitary bees that live in tiny nests in sticks and reeds, abandoned rodent burrows and underground. According to Dr Rozen one of the common New York City bees, the Leafcutter Bee, can make a home in the tiniest of spots, like a nail hole, a paper straw or a cavity in the soil.  Their name derives from the fact they wallpaper their cells with neatly folded sections of leaf. Circular cuts in the park’s leaves are often evidence of their handiwork.

6 Leafcutter Bee Bob Peterson.jpg

Leafcutter Bee

Photo: Bob Peterson

Another park resident, the Wool Carder Bee, will scrape fibers off fuzzy plants like Lamb’s Ear to line its nest. And the Carpenter Bees like to chew a hole (‘about 4-5 inches deep and the size of your pinky,’ says Dr Rozen), into wooden posts, old branches and phone poles to make a nest. If you see a small pile of sawdust near a downed branch or park bench then there’s likely a Carpenter Bee in residence nearby.  But some Small Carpenter Bees prefer to live in the stems of plants, some as small as a coffee stirrer.

7 Carpenter Bee nest Helena Jacoba.jpg

Carpenter Bee nest

Photo: Helena Jacoba

The life of the solitary bee is a humble one. The female lives just one year and never sees her offspring. She spends three to six weeks above ground, collecting nectar and pollen to make food balls that she carefully places into each cell in the nest. She lays her eggs on top and dies at the end of the season. The next year her offspring hatch alone and emerge from the nest between April and August.

8 Green Sweat Bee in woodland nest Paula

Green Sweat Bee in woodland nest

Photo: Paula Sharp

One of the most endangered bee species, (a quarter face extinction), is the Bumble Bee. ‘They are the teddy bears of the insect world because of their shaggy appearance,’ says Dr Sarah Kornbluth, field associate at the American Museum of Natural History. There are 16 species of Bumble Bee in New York and the Eastern Bumble Bee and the Brown-Belted Bumble Bee are common sights in our park. Typically they feast on blue, yellow, white and purple flowers because they are color-blind to red.

9 Eastern Carpenter Bee on Cuphea plant

Eastern Carpenter Bee on Cuphea plant

Photo: Banford Weissmann

Bumble Bees are epic pollinators. They can do at least eight times more work than the Honey Bee because they can remain active in cooler temperatures thanks to their furry coats and their ability to vibrate their bodies to stay warm.  Bumble Bees also carry larger loads of pollen (due to their size), are messier (which helps to spread the pollen better for pollination), and perform something called “buzz pollination” grabbing a flower in their jaws and vibrating their wing muscles to dislodge pollen. And tests show they could fly over Everest - higher than most helicopters.

10 Common Eastern Bumble Bee with pollen

Common Eastern Bumble Bee with pollen baskets

Photo: Paula Sharp

So what of the Honey Bee? ‘They are not native to the US. They were brought over by the early settlers about 400 years ago for honey and wax for candles,’ says Dr Rozen. And while Honey Bees are vital for pollinating commercial crops, their abundance and machine-like intensity can have a deleterious effect on native bee populations. Rich Hatfield suggests that, ‘Anyone who wants to help native bees survive in the city should plant flowers and create a safe habitat, not set up a Honey Bee hive. Beekeeping is a great hobby, but do it for the honey, not for the environment. You are introducing as many as 50,000 individuals per hive that need food in an already strapped urban environment.’

11 Wool Carder Bee on Lamb's Ear Plant J

Wool Carder Bee on Lamb's Ear Plant

Photo: Jennifer Flynn

Words: Lucie Young


Images: Banford Weissmann, Paula Sharp, Bob Peterson,  Julio Sharp, Helena Jacoba, Jennifer Flynn, Gerald Carter

Links:  To learn more about bumble bees and their habitat

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