Did you know that one out of every three bites of food you eat was created, at least in part, by the pollination of a bee? Really, one third! I was startled to learn this and many other surprising facts from the bee scientists I have had the pleasure to get to know recently.

This summer I followed around an enthusiastic ecologist from the Chicago Botanic Garden, Rebecca Tonietto, who studies native bees. She is a PhD candidate in the conservation graduate program offered jointly by the Garden and Northwestern University. Her research focuses on how different restoration practices and landscapes impact different species of bees. Since there are more than 500 species of bees in Illinois, that is a tall order!

A native bee snacks on a black-eyed susan (pic by Rebecca Tonietto)

On our most recent EcoMyths Worldview segment, Jerome McDonnell and I talked with Rebecca and another passionate bee scientist, Sydney Cameron, a bumblebee specialist from the University of Illinois.

Having never really thought very much about bees before, I just assumed that all bees lived in hives, made honey, and would sting me if I got too close. As is so often true, I had based my assumptions about bees on my own experiences. But, as Jerome and I learned from Rebecca and Sydney, most bees do not live in hives—they live in the soil or in old logs in the tiny holes that have been created and left empty by other creatures. Also, bees are much more interested in flowers than in people and only sting you when they are threatened.

So I should not have been surprised when our bee experts told us that only honeybees make honey. But then, how was I to know that there are 20,000 species of bees worldwide?

Many of these species don’t even look like the yellow and black bees that we see in cartoons and in traditional artwork. One of these thousands of varietals of bee species are beautiful little iridescent emerald-colored bees that are as tiny as the tip of a pen. They are called sweat bees because they land on your skin and lick off your sweat! They are not interested in stinging at all, unless you trap them and they can’t get out, and then it is just a tiny pinch. Not at all like the sting of a honeybee.

I was amazed to hear about the range of shapes, colors, sizes, and habits there are of the many bees, all of which are vitally important for pollination.

Sydney Cameron sent along these gorgeous bumblebee pics. Clockwise from top left: bombus affinis (Johanna James-Heinz), bombus terricola (Leif Richardson), bombus pensylvanicus (Thom Wilson), bombus franklini (Peter Schroeder)

Because Bees Eat Lunch, We Eat Lunch

Pollination occurs when a bee eats a meal. Bees fly to colorful flowers to drink the nectar and eat the pollen. The pollen also sticks to the tiny hairs on the bees’ body and legs. Then they fly to another flower to continue feeding, leaving behind some of the pollen from the previous flower, pollinating the second flower.

Most plants require active pollination by an insect and 99 percent of those insects are bees. Each of the bee species in the world prefers a different type of flower for its food. Some tiny ones pollinate squash plants; some of the bigger ones go to watermelons, tomatoes, etc. Without them, there would be no plant or food diversity.

Honeybees, which are easily transported because they live in hives they build inside man-made boxes, are trucked around the country to pollinate our industrial crops. But diseases and possibly also pesticides have contributed to population declines in honeybees. This phenomenon is called colony collapse disorder, but it is not yet widely understood.

With honeybees under threat, there is growing importance of providing places for native (wild) bees to live. Habitat for native bees is dwindling, as there are fewer patches of bare soil and fallen logs in which to live, especially in developed environments.

But with human help, we can create bee-friendly habitats. There are many things that can be done, even in urban environments to provide for native bee food and shelter, including planting native wildflowers and leaving bare patches of soil where possible. These practices are detailed more completely in our new video series, The Bee Chronicles.

—As part of the Worldview/EcoMyths partnership, this blog also appears on the Chicago Public Radio page, where you can also download the related podcast.