The disappearance of bees probably isn't as bad as you think—and there's plenty you can do

To read some of the headlines over the past few years, you’d think all the continent’s bees were dying terrible, troubled deaths. In Canada, General Mills has even removed all but the outline of its trademark bee, Buzz, from boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios as part of its #BringBackTheBees campaign, which also distributes free packets of wildflower seeds.

But: The bees are all right.

Or at least, a lot of them are.

If you're like most Americans, you can probably name just a few types of bees. Bumblebee. Honeybee. You might call a fuzzy flying bug you see a "sweat bee."

Giddy up, kiddos, because there are way more bees than that.

Last fall, Princeton University Press published The Bees in Your Back Yard: A Guide to North America's Bees. Along with her co-author, Joseph S Wilson, Santa Fe's Olivia Messinger Carril provides identification information on thousands of bee species that live in the United States and Canada.

Headline-grabbing diseases like colony collapse disorder only affect honeybees, Carril explains.

"To say that all bees are in decline implies that they all respond the same to all environmental changes," she says. But that's not the case. When it comes to diet, there are specialist and generalized bees. Then there are ground-nesters and twig-nesters, bees that live communally in hives, and bees that are more solitary. "They're going to respond differently depending on their own little bodies and how they evolved," says Carril.

People can make educated guesses and say that pesticide use or large-scale changes to the landscape—like converting a meadow into a soybean or corn field—aren't helpful to the survival of a bee population. But without evidence showing what the populations were before the changes, it's difficult to say exactly what's happening.

"It's a normal thing for populations to fluctuate," she says of wild bees. "They move around, depending on where the flowers are coming up, depending on moisture—and that makes it hard to know when you are actually seeing a decline."

And while some New Mexicans may have watched as their mail-order honeybees died within backyard hives, there are millions of native bees in the state, pollinating flowers, searching out tiny puddles of water and living the good life.

"The interesting thing about bees in New Mexico is how little is known about them," says Carril. "There are about 4,000 species of bees in North America—and over a thousand of them are probably found in New Mexico."

Scientists know that, but not because of widespread surveys or samples. Unlike some states, New Mexico hasn't been sampled extensively. Rather, says Carril, when range maps show a species living in, say, Mexico, Colorado, and Texas, it's probably safe to assume they live here, too.

The official tally for Santa Fe County lists only about 100 species, she says, "but easily, there are 300 to 400 in the area. It's just no one has taken a net to see what's here." She adds that's probably true for much of northern and central New Mexico.

"All these different eco-regions come together, even kind of around Santa Fe: the Rockies, the Colorado Plateau, desert, plains," she says. "It all must make for interesting bee dynamics."

All that said, bees could still use a boost. And there are easy ways to help them.

"Bees want to survive, just like we all do. They're opportunists," says Carril. "It's easy to help bees out: They will take anything you give them."

Carril points out that people often plant daffodils and tulips around public buildings. Those early bloomers signal spring to those of us walking past. "It would be just as easy to put in native plants that bloom in the spring," she says. "That tiny shift on state and county and city land could do a lot to help the bee populations that were here before us."

Around Santa Fe, there are plenty of bee-friendly plants for people to grow, including anything in the sunflower, mint or pea families. Other good plants for native bees include rabbit brush, asters, fleabane, penstemons, globe mallow, cactus flowers and Russian sage.

Carpenter bees like to nest inside yucca plants, she says, and leaf cutter bees like rose leaves to cut out and take back to their nest. And sometimes, helping bees is as easy as not raking up last season's detritus: "Any sort of perennial with long stalks, don't cut them off, or if you do," says Carril, "leave them on the ground, because bees will nest inside those old stems."

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