~ Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife ~
The southeastern blueberry bee (Habropoda laboriosa) is a native bee found in much of the eastern U.S. It is approximately a half inch long and looks kind of like a small bumble bee. Like its name suggests, the southeastern blueberry bee forages primarily on blueberry pollen and nectar, although it will also visit several other early blooming plants.
Southeastern blueberry bees are solitary nesters that dig nesting chambers in sandy soils. Sometimes several female blueberry bees will create nesting chambers close to each other, but each bee digs and uses her own nesting chamber. Think of it as a bee subdivision where each bee has her own “house.” Each nesting chamber can contain several rooms and each room will contain a single egg along with the nectar and pollen that the larvae will need to consume when it hatches.
Most of a southeastern blueberry bee’s life is spent underground as either a larvae or a pupae. The adult southeastern blueberry bees emerge from their underground nests in the early spring, about the time the blueberries start to bloom. The adult bees are only active for a few weeks during which time they must mate, dig nesting chambers, lay eggs, and store enough pollen and nectar to last each larvae until it matures and emerges the following spring. After a few weeks of activity, the adults die and southeastern blueberry bees won’t be seen again until this year’s young emerge next spring. With so much of its life occurring underground, it is easy to see how local populations could be unintentionally exterminated without anyone even realizing they were there.
Although the lifespan of an adult southeastern blueberry bee is short, it plays a very important role in the ecosystem. Both native, wild blueberries and domesticated, commercial blueberries are more efficiently pollinated through a process called “buzz pollination.” In buzz pollination, the bee crawls inside the flower and rapidly vibrates its shoulders to loosen the pollen. Southeastern blueberry bees and a few other native bees do this; honey bees don’t. Researchers have estimated that it takes three visits from a honey bee to pollinate a blueberry flower as well as one visit from a native bee that uses buzz pollination. Only in recent years have we begun to realize how important native bees are to crop pollination and the vital roles they play in our ecosystems.
Shannon Trimboli is a beekeeper, farmer, wildlife biologist, and author. She owns Grassy Roads Farm and Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting. Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting specializes in plants and habitat consulting services for honey bees, native pollinators, and wildlife conservation. She is the author of Plants Honey Bees Use in the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys. Shannon also writes a blog about Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife and a farm and nursery blog that features stories of life on the farm, tips for attracting pollinators and wildlife, and highlights of different plants for pollinators and wildlife.