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John and Ann Wynn remove a frame out of a beehive in North Salem, Indiana on August 2, 2021. (NRCS photo by Carly Whitmore)

Honeybees and native bees each play important roles in agriculture, but they each serve different purposes. In this edition of Ask the Expert, Indiana NRCS wildlife biologist Brianne Lowe has stopped by to answer your question about how they differ, what roles they play and how the NRCS can help.

What differentiates a honeybee from native bees?

Many people do not realize that the iconic honeybee is a species of livestock here in United States.  Honeybees were brought to North America by Europeans as pollinators for their crops and as a source of honey. 

Honeybees are managed in hives with ten to hundreds of thousands of individual bees. Groups of hives are called apiaries. These hives and apiaries may be maintained in a single location or be moved around depending on where pollination services are needed. Honeybees serve as a pollination option to support crop production when there is no native habitat nearby to support native bee populations.

Apiaries are maintained over winter as well with a small portion of the colony surviving through the cold months of the year to re-emerge and expand the hive again in the spring.

There are over 430 species of native bees in Indiana alone. These bees range in size from tiny sweat bees to large bumble bees. Most native bees are solitary bees, where a single female bee lays eggs and provides for the next generation. Bumblebees do live in small colonies (small in comparison to honeybees) but the colonies do not overwinter, only the queen overwinters. Native bees are also important pollinators for all types of agricultural crops. The role they play with the production orchard crops or vegetables should not be underestimated. There are also specialist bees such a squash bee or the blue orchard bee that are known for their pollination services. There are even some crops that can be only be pollinated by our native pollinators. Honeybees cannot extract pollen from tomato, pepper or eggplant flowers. Only bumblebees, through a process called buzz pollination, can move pollen between the flowers of these crops.  And the great thing about the native bees is they do not require active management. There are no hive checks or over wintering protection required. Only habitat is needed.

I keep hearing bees are in trouble. Are honeybees or our native bees in need of help?

There has been a lot of news lately about the loss of pollinators.  And this can be confusing information to interpret when differing between honeybees and native pollinators. 

Managed honeybee colonies have faced a number of challenges in recent history. Disease, mites and insecticide usage have weakened hives and, in some cases, resulted in hive die-offs. Exact causes for the declines are unknown, but the most likely culprit is actually a combination of stressors on the colony. Annual die-offs can be as high as 30%. This is not a small impact on apiaries and can take a frustrating toll on beekeepers who spend so much time, energy, money and commitment to managing their hives. But while honeybees do have real problems, and the losses are hard felt, the recent decline in native bees is much more staggering.

Like honeybees, native bees are facing many stressors, including disease (many times spread by nearby honeybees), parasites, insecticides and, additionally, the loss of habitat. This last stressor has a tremendous impact on our native bees, because without habitat, there is no place for these bees to live.  Large areas of habitat also protect native bees from the other stressors listed.  But like the honeybee, it is most likely the combination of these factors causing the drastic declines in native bee populations. In 2017, the rusty-patched bumble bee became the first bee listed under the Endangered Species Act. Once common across the eastern United States, including Indiana, there are only a few known isolated populations left. Several additional bee species are being assessed for listing in the future, as their numbers are also declining. 

What assistance can NRCS provide?

Knowing there are potential stressors facing both honeybees and native bees, there are steps you can take to help.

First and foremost is to ensure that the bees have food year-round. Crops only bloom for short periods each year and do not supply a constant or diverse food source for bees. Plantings that provide pollen and nectar sources from early spring through late fall can fill in these gaps.  Conservation practices including 327 Conservation Cover, 420 Wildlife Habitat Planting and 422 Hedgerow Planting can all fill this need. 340 Cover Crops can also be used and managed in a way that can provide a food source for pollinators. 

Protecting bees from insecticide exposure is also important. By planting sufficient habitat with the above listed practices, we can buffer against the potential drift from insecticides, but we also have a Conservation Practice, 595 Pest Management, which assists with the management of pest insects in such a way that reduces the overall impact to non-target species. Even practices such as 329 Residue and Tillage Management - No-till, reduces ground disturbance and can protect those native bees that nest in the ground.  

How should you change a pollinator planting based on whether you are supporting native bees or honeybee hives?

The best planting to consider all depends on the goal and the intent of the planting. Native plantings provide long-term habitat that will not only provide diverse food sources for bees, but also shelter from weather and nesting habitat. They provide all of the life cycle needs for native bees, and some of nutritional needs for honeybees. Diverse food sources provide a variety of nutrition, and as one flowering plant fades for a season, another comes into bloom. For this type of habitat, using native plants from the 420 Wildlife Habitat Planting, or 422 Hedgerow Planting are great options.

A downside of these plantings for beekeepers is they take a long time to establish. These planting can take up to three years or more to reach their full bloom potential. This is not an issue for solitary bees, but for a large hive, it can be insufficient for nutritional needs, particularly for honey production and overwintering of the hive. In instances where the management of honeybees is the primary resource concern, using 327 Conservation Cover, and planting introduced (non-native) species, such as the clovers, buckwheat, or alfalfa, can result in many blooms in a short period of time to meet the nutritional needs of the hive. These types of plants also result in honey production with highly marketable flavor. These plantings will be used by native bees but do not necessarily contain all of the micronutrient needs of the native species. Combinations of plantings, where space allows the two types of plantings to have their own footprint on the landscape, is a way to meet the needs of both types of pollinators.

How can I get more information about which of the practices could help my land?

To find out more about practices that could benefit your land for pollinators, contact your local USDA Service Center. There, your local NRCS representative will assist you directly with obtaining the information you need to for a conservation plan or help put you in touch with one of our partners that can help with pollinator conservation.

How does the NRCS help implement conservation practices?

NRCS is able to provide technical guidance to landowners that include the why, what, where, when and how of conservation practices.  Our technical guidance includes information on how to prepare your site for a planting, what to plant and how to plant and manage it.   

There are also USDA financial assistance programs available to eligible landowners for some conservation practices. These programs provide payment rates to help offset the implementation costs of conservation practices. Speak to your local NRCS field office to determine if you are eligible for a conservation financial assistance program.

Additional Information


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