Before Honeybees: Forest Bees

Before 1600, east of the Mississippi, bees were forest-adapted. Now...

Save for the patches of clearings for small-scale farming and intentional and incidental fires, the Eastern United States was largely uninterrupted mixed hardwood forests until the 1600s.

Our “honeybees” of today were newly imported aliens, brought into the New World with the early settlers from Europe. Meeting the native forest bees for the first time, they displaced them in the human economy unchallenged—until the honeybee’s sad recent history of Colony Collapse, varroa mites, neonicotinoids and other stressors made their future vigor an unknown. Now we’d best be kind to the bees we have left.

As vast swaths of land were cleared, the native insect species that had evolved in and adapted their life cycles to that vast forest habitat have changed in mix and abundance.

The recent study I will tell you about in summary form here looked at how the mix of bee species (generally forest-dwelling vs field dwelling) has changed, and discusses the so-what.

First the researchers had to determine which species are historically bees of the forest that exists now only in tens of thousands of fragmented stands, and that, immature and depauperate.

What has been learned is that forest size matters, and when and what to plant to encourage pollination needs to be revisited. Then do the waggle dance. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Below my re-organizing and summarizing of the article, emphasis mine:

📘 Taken from Bees of the Eastern Forests | Xerces Society | 6 Jan 2021 📘

Forest bees (as determined by this research) are adapted in their life cycles to periods of intense blooming of wildflowers, trees and shrubs in April and May and not after the understory is in shade.

Forest bees have a short flight season

  • …most forest-associated bee species have short periods of adult activity and flight seasons corresponding to that period of brief springtime bloom; they emerge in March or April and disappear by June. As is typical of short-season species, three-quarters of these bees are solitary, with each female building her own nest in which she lays and provisions her eggs before she dies.

🐝 Field-adapted bees consists of more social bees with a long flight season

  • “The dominant species in the native forest landscapes are solitary spring-flying bees and their associated brood parasites. In agricultural and urban landscapes these species are replaced by late-season bees from different phylogenetic lineages, many of which are social.”

How well are forest-adapted bees coping in fragmented landscapes today? 🐝

  • Interestingly, the forest bees and generalist bee species, which use both human habitats and forests, responded differently to forest size.

  • Whereas the habitat generalists were similarly abundant in both large forests and smaller forest fragments, the forest bees were more abundant in the larger blocks of forest.

  • ▶ This finding suggests that, as is the case for many other plants and animals that specialize on forest habitat, conserving large areas of forest is important for the wellbeing of forest bees.


  • Forest bees are important spring pollinators---fruit trees, brambles

    • Insufficient pollination leads to smaller fruit size. So forest bees need protecting

    • Recent work led by Dr. James Reilly, a researcher in my lab group, found that wild bees are as important as honey bees in pollinating early-season fruit crops.

    • The focus of management actions has been on enhancing pollinator habitat in open areas, such as agricultural fields and backyards, where forest-associated species are less likely to be found.

    • Second, it focuses on the wrong time of year. The plants used to improve pollinator habitat in the eastern United States bloom in the summer, after most of the forest bees are no longer active.

SO if we want to have bees in the widest diversity of species and the greatest overall population numbers, we need to better manage our forests, especially adjacent to orchards and vegetable crops - maintained without bee-killing pesticides, of course.

More to come soon on the related topic of PROforestation.

Forest fragmentation in Southwest Virginia, Roanoke is the void center right. Our old homeplace in NE Floyd County, lower center-left, circled to show recent devastating clear-cut of several hundred acres.