I am learning about native pollinators the same way I learned about our native plants and native birds. Baby steps, one species at a time, and asking what makes each species unique. When and where can I find it? Does it associate with other species? What is its niche? Its life cycle? Its dependencies? How is the species coping with a changing world?
There are a few hundred bird species in North Carolina including some I will never see, or perhaps see and not recognize. The same can be said for our native plants. That said, each bird or plant species I add to my “nature vocabulary” deepens my understanding and appreciation of the natural world. Each species enriches my next outing.
According to BugGuide.net, there are 4,000 species of native bees in North America. This is a short story about a chance encounter with a native shrub and a native bee.
In March, 2012, on a day trip to the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge, a roadside shrub caught my eye. Few native plants blossom in mid-March, especially in the Carolina sandhills, but here was this handsome shrub, covered with bright white blossoms. Leaves had emerged and clusters of raisin-like red fruit had somehow survived the winter. In the center of each 5-petaled flower, 20 bright pink stamens added to the charm.
In the spring of 2012 I did not know this shrub. I photographed the flowers, the fruit, and newly emerged leaves. As I did, a stream of buzzing bees visited blossom after blossom. I did my best to capture photos of a few of these bees.
In recent years Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia ) has become a favorite shrub. It is an early blooming native that prefers a sunny, moist location and it is represented in many native plant gardens. In the sandhills it is quick to recover following disturbance, be it thinning, burning, or road work. It is slender, multi-stemmed, and often only 2 to 3 meters tall.
Early blooming shrubs draw special attention from early emerging native bees. They depend upon each other. Bees are foraging for pollen to cache for their offspring. Aronia will not set fruit without the bees. In mid-March pollinators have limited choices and Aronia arbutifolia becomes a bee magnet.
That same spring day in 2012 I photographed an early, tall blueberry species along a pond margin. Blueberry blossoms, not yet fully open, attracted small, fuzzy bees resembling unmarked bumblebees. I had seen this same species nectaring on the Aronia blossoms.
I submitted several images of the bee to BugGuide.net who promptly identified the species as the Southeastern Blueberry Bee (Habropoda laboriosa). They are ground nesting bees. They emerge in early spring and are active from February through April. Sources suggest this native species is the most efficient pollinator of southern rabbiteye blueberries and are abundant in southern blueberry orchards. According to a USDA post these bees are capable of buzz pollination and a single female may be responsible for the production of 6,000 blueberries.
Now that I know a bit about this one native bee, I will be paying special attention to our early blooming native Vaccinium species in hopes of witnessing an instance of blueberry “buzz pollination”.