9 Jun 2020

Native Maine bees: Critical Pollinators for Agriculture

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Nearly 4,000 bee species have been identified in the United States.  In Maine, there are more than 270 species of bees, representing six families. Bees are important pollinators for Maine agricultural crops. In fact, each year it takes more than 45,000 hives containing 1.4 billion bees just to pollinate Maine’s wild blueberry crop!

Bees are more complex creatures than many people realize. Here’s an overview of just one native bee family, to explore these vital creatures more deeply, from State Apiarist Jen Lund. 

Family Apidae (Bumble, Carpenter, Cuckoo, and Honey Bees)

This is a very diverse family containing many of the most recognizable species of bees.  Members of these families display a wide range of nesting, foraging, and social behavior. 

Bombus spp. (bumble bees) are medium to large (0.4 to 0.9 inches long) in size, very hairy, and have yellow, white, black, orange or red bands and markings.  Bumble bees are generalist foragers; visiting a wide variety of plant species throughout the season.  Mated queens, from the previous fall, emerge from their hibernation site in the early spring to search for a suitable nesting site, usually abandoned rodent burrows, hollow grass tussocks, and cavities in snag trees. Once a site is chosen, the queen builds several wax cups that she fills it with nectar, pollen or a mixture of both.  The queen lays eggs.  After hatching, the larvae are fed a mixture of pollen and nectar.  Once large enough, the larvae pupate and emerge as adults.  Once the queen’s first batch of daughters emerge, she no longer participates in raising young and focuses solely on egg laying.  The colony can grow to a couple of hundred individuals as the season progresses.  In the late summer/early fall, the colony produces new queens and drones (males).  After mating, the new queens locate a place to hibernate for the winter.  The first hard frost kills the colony including the old queen.  Check out the Maine Bumble Bee Atlas for more information on the bumble bees of Maine (https://mainebumblebeeatlas.umf.maine.edu/).    

Nomada spp. (cuckoo bees) do not construct their own nests but lay their eggs in nests provisioned by other bee species. When the cuckoo bee larva hatches it consumes the host larva’s pollen ball and if present, will kill and eat the host bee’s egg and/or larva.  Adult Nomada spp. come in a variety of different colors and patterns.  They loosely resemble wasps in that they have reduced body hair, thick or sculptured exoskeletons, and large mandibles. Since they do not care for their own young, female cuckoo bees lack pollen collecting structures (the scopa). In Maine there are 27 species of Nomada.

Apis melifera (western honey bee) is the only species of Apis found in Maine.  Originally from Eurasia, the western honey bee is not native to Maine.  With human aid, the western honey bee is now found on every continent except Antarctica. It is the primary species maintained by beekeepers for honey production and pollination.  In Maine there are approximately 1,200 registered beekeepers that maintain nearly 10,000 hives.  The western honey bee is eusocial: it has a single reproductive individual (queen). The non-reproductive workers cooperate in caring for the young.  Western honey bees have developed complex ways to communicate that include pheromones and even dance.  A single colony can house tens of thousands of individuals made up of three casts; the queen, workers and drones. Worker bees are the most recognized members of the honey bee hive and the most abundant, making up around 99% of the individuals in a hive!  They are female and responsible for all the activities in the hive, including foraging, cleaning, brood care, and guarding the hive. Workers have modified ovipositors (egg laying structures) they use to sting.  Drones are the male bees in a colony. They are larger than workers, are bullet shaped, have very large eyes and number in the low 100s. They have one job, to mate with queens from other hives. Since they do not have an ovipositor, drones are incapable of stinging.  There is one queen per hive. She is the only fertile member of the colony, laying between 1,000 and 2,000 eggs a day during spring and summer months.  They have longer abdomens and smaller wings than worker bees. After emerging as an adult, the queen will take a mating flight, return to the hive and not leave again unless accompanied by a swarm. 

Jennifer Lund, Maine State Apiarist

Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry

Division of Animal and Plant Health

Email: jennifer.lund@maine.gov