Species Spotlight: Pollinators of the Pacific Northwest
There's always room to learn more about bees. Here's a 101 on our region's primary pollinators.
By Dez Ramirez
If you’ve been feeling restless and tired of the Pacific Northwest’s finicky and cold spring weather, you’re not alone. Bees, this region’s primary pollinators, are tired of it too. Below 55 degrees Fahrenheit, bee wing muscles are too cold to operate properly; however, bees don’t thrive in extreme heat either. Our temperate Pacific Northwest climate makes a most desirable home for them.
There are thousands of different bee species, and Oregon alone could have as many as 500 species, but this number remains unconfirmed and populations have been threatened during the past several years. Bees have been dying off at an alarming rate due to a myriad of issues, including widespread insecticide and herbicide use, declines in habitat, and an unstable, unpredictable climate.
Oregon’s $6 billion agriculture industry needs them, and nearly 85% of all plants on earth require pollinators to reproduce. Yes, the future could be dismal if we don’t protect our bees. A good place to start is to understand and identify the most common species in our region.
Two sets of wings, small eyes, and longer antennae are a few characteristics that distinguish a bee from a fly. Males tend to have longer antennae and additional short, fuzzy hair or markings. Both honey and bumble bees are large, with round, hairy bodies and yellow, black, and orange markings. Sweat bees have distinctively striped abdomens, while mason and carpenter bees share similar colorings in metallic shades of green, blue, purple, and black.
With different ranging life cycles among these common bee groups, pollination remains their common shared duty. Honey and bumble bees carry pollen in a pollen basket called a corbicula, located on their hind legs; sweat bees carry it on their hind legs and on the underside of their bodies; and masons carry it in the specialized hairs on their abdomens. A unique pollen–carrying technique is used by carpenter bees, which transport pollen by swallowing it and then regurgitating it back at their nests. Most of these groups prefer to pollinate various fruit and vegetable crops, like apples, berries, carrots, and celery, but they also gravitate toward clover, flowers, and herbs. “Bee season” is generally from spring through fall. With the exception of honey and bumble bees, most Oregon-native bee species are solitary, meaning single females build nests underground or in places like hollowed plant stems or crevices in wood or rocks.
Oregon declared a pollinator emergency in 2014, and following that the statewide Oregon Bee Project put together a strategic plan for pollinators, which seems to have increased knowledge and understanding of local bees; expanded habitat, thanks to efforts by farmers and gardeners; and improved protection from pesticide and herbicide exposure.
Apis – honey bee
Bombus – bumble bee
Halictus – sweat bee
Osmia – mason bee
Ceratina – carpenter bee
Although this piece spotlights Pacific Northwest species, these fantastic photos were part of the “Insects Unlocked” project at The University of Texas at Austin, featuring species across the U.S.