WILD GEORGIA: Native bees come in many sizes, colors and shapes

Charles Seabrook’s “Wild Georgia” column appears weekly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It’s a familiar scene in spring — bees of different stripes, shapes and sizes buzzing among colorful blooms, sipping nectar and gathering pollen and thereby pollinating the plants.

The insects captivate me as I watch them go about their “work,” such as the other day when I lingered too long — almost missing an appointment — while gazing at bumble bees in a patch of red clover. Other insect pollinators also busied themselves there, but it was the large, black-and-yellow bumble bees that riveted my attention as they zipped and landed amongst the red blooms.

Bumble bees, and perhaps the carpenter bees, are our most familiar native bees, but some 4,000 other bee species also are native to the United States. More than 500 of them live in Georgia. An exception is the honeybee, a non-native that was imported by early European settlers.

The vast majority of native bees are pollinators, responsible for pollinating most fruit, nut and vegetable crops as well as native wildflowers. It has been said that bees pollinate one of every three bites of food we eat. (The honeybee also is an important pollinator, but before its arrival, native bees did all of the pollination.)

Not surprisingly, there’s wide diversity among Georgia’s native bees. Besides bumble bees and carpenter bees, there are mason bees, sweat bees, squash bees, leaf-cutter bees, blueberry bees, mining bees and others. Some species, such as the bumble bee, are social insects, but most species, such as the carpenter bee, are solitary. Some species sting; others don’t.

About 80 percent of bees are generalists, sustaining themselves on many plants. The other 20 percent are specialists, relying only on one or two plants. For instance, the common little pink-and-white Georgia wildflower known as spring-beauty, now in bloom, is pollinated by the spring beauty bee, whose larvae feed only on the flower‘s pink pollen.

IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be in its first quarter on Wednesday morning. Mercury is very low in the east just before sunrise. Venus is low in the west at dusk and sets about two hours later — and will appear near the moon tonight. Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are low in the east about three hours before dawn.