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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

June 14, 2013 at 7:00 AM

A lesson in the value of native pollinators

The moment I found the hive, I had a hunch.  And while I’ll never really have conclusive proof, I still have my suspicions and some interesting new natives in my backyard.

The story goes like this:

I have several plum trees, and they have flowered for several years now, but each year the number of plums the trees produced was a pittance.  On our best year, I think we got four.  The same goes for my cherry tree.

All of a sudden this year I noticed that the trees have scads of small plums hanging on most every branch.  I thought the reason was that the trees had matured to the point where they were able to produce fruit, but I was mowing the lawn and came up with another possible answer.

I was mowing beside a birdhouse that hangs on my fence. I turned off the mower and to my surprise I could hear the birdhouse humming.

My instant reaction was, “Oh no.”

I looked in the hole on the front of the birdfeeder and saw what looked like little bumblebees, but a little more than half the size of the ones I grew up with in the Midwest. They had coloration fairly typical for a bumblebee with one striking difference, their butts were deep orange.

With some help from the Internet and Scott Black, Executive Director at The Xerces Society, my “Oh no” turned into “Excellent.”

It turns out my new backyard inhabitants were black-tailed bumblebees, Bombus melanopygus, an excellent native pollinator.  My hunch was that they were the reason I suddenly had an abundance of baby plums, and there are aspects to the species that point in that direction.

According to Black, Bombus melanopygus is very important to the pollination of native plants, and join the non-native honey bee in the pollination act for Pacific Northwest fruit crops, especially our berry crops like strawberries and raspberries.

The advantage that the native black-tailed has over the European honey bee for plums is that they are much hardier in the cold.  They range from California to Alaska and start pollinating much earlier in the season.

Plums are an early flowering tree.  Because of our warmer than normal early spring, Black was reluctant to say that there was a direct relation between the new hive in my backyard and the increase of plums.  But there’s another quality to these bumblebees that make them valuable for people with spring flowering plants.

Being that they are used to our Puget Sound weather, they will pollinate in the rain.  Honeybees are reluctant to do so.  In general it seems this little native bumblebee is willing to put in longer hours in more inclement conditions.  And another added bonus, they seem docile.  I can go about my lawn and garden business and they are intent on going about theirs.

Those are a few of the reasons why Black and The Xerces Society are in the business of encouraging conservation of native pollinators that are essential in plant reproduction in our backyards and forests.

What we do in our backyards is important to encouraging the cooperation of these natives, says Black.  He encourages plant diversity and the avoidance of pesticides. “Grow things that create a buffet of flowers across the season,” Black said.

As far as I am concerned, they can have the birdhouse. And after learning they are seasonal nesters, locating places with fresh queens each year, I’m thinking about hanging more possible abodes on my fence.  With honeybees stressed by colony collapse disorder, zombie bees discovered in the state last year, and general concern over our ability to get the pollination we need, these hardy native pollinators are a welcome in my backyard.

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