Written by Phyllis Stiles
When my calendar said March 20, I knew it was the Spring Equinox. But plants and animals, especially pollinators, would feel it in their bones--if they had any bones. As days grow longer and our collective cells experience the sun’s warmth, the sap rises in trees, herbaceous plants find their stems lengthening, leaves form, blossoms unfurl, and seeds sequestered in the dark send out root hairs and reach to the sky with new life.
Like a finely tuned orchestra with each instrument playing its part, species fulfill their destinies. Thanks to dedicated scientists like Jarrod Fowler and Sam Droege and many others, we are learning much more about the bee mothers who won’t collect just any old pollen for their offspring. (On the other hand, they’ll take nectar wherever they can get it.) These pollen specialists make up about one quarter of the world’s 20,000 species of bees. Flower pollen is a bee’s only source of protein. Without it their larvae will not develop into healthy adults.
Redbud trees and blueberry bushes bloom early in the spring which makes Southeastern blueberry bees happy. They are often mistaken for bumble bees, but if you see a mother collecting pollen from redbud or blueberry flowers and, if her pollen is loosely spread around her back legs rather than neatly balled up like pollen on a honey or bumble bee’s back leg, you have probably seen a Southeastern blueberry bee (Habropoda laboriosa).
Smaller than bumble bees, Osmia virga bees also specialize on blueberry flowers and conveniently clue us in with their blue-green color and no striping on their rounded abdomen. Like leafcutter bees, Osmia bees transport pollen under their bellies. Because these mamas build cells for their young out of clay, they are known as mason bees.
I was taught that you are the company you keep. These specialist bees have really taken that maxim to heart by keeping company with the flowers that will make their babies thrive. Sadly, due to pesticides, climate change, and habitat loss—including the special native plants they rely on to raise the next generation, nearly 60% of pollen specialist bees are considered rare and declining.
Asheville GreenWorks’ Bee City USA program is encouraging everyone to choose pesticide-free native plants for their landscapes to sustain as many bee species and other pollinators as possible in our mountains. At more than 500 species, we are proud that North Carolina has the most bee diversity of any Southern state! If you plant their preferred species, they will come, and you need not worry about any of these solitary bees stinging you. They don’t have large nests to defend like honey and bumble bees.
Visit Asheville GreenWorks’ website to download newly updated lists of pollinator-friendly native perennials, shrubs, trees, vines, and grasses along with a list of local sources for each plant. Not only do we live in a botanical garden of Eden, we are lucky to have many nurseries growing and selling native plants without pesticides that would harm pollinators. Join Asheville GreenWorks’ E-News list and like our Facebook page to receive announcements of native plant sales around the region as well as opportunities to plant and certify pollinator gardens.
Phyllis Stiles is an Asheville GreenWorks board member and founder and director emerita of the national Bee City USA® program. Bee City USA merged with the Xerces Society for invertebrate Conservation in 2018. Asheville GreenWorks leads the Bee City USA-Asheville affiliate.