The Little Pollinator that Could

Today’s image is a bee from the genus Agapostemon, a striped sweat bee gathering pollen from some Echinacea flowers next to our mailbox.

It might be difficult to see, but you might notice the yellow “saddlebags” that the little bee is sporting. I’d seen that before but never gave it much thought, but it seems that bees have a couple of different ways to carry off excess pollen as they make their rounds.

One way is through a structure known as a corbicula or “pollen basket.” Corbicula is a Latin term meaning, literally, “little basket.” (Bonus aside: the nickname of the Roman emperor Caligula is formed the same way. It means, roughly, “little boot.” The emperor’s actual regnal name was Gaius.) Honeybees, bumblebees, stingless bees, and orchid bees all have this structure for pollen transportation.

Other bees, such as the sweatbee above, have a scopa instead. Scopa is Latin for “broom.” Instead of a little basket, these bees have an area of dense hairs, usually on their hind legs, for storing the pollen for transportation. That’s what you can see happening here with this hard-working little bee.

When we think of bees, we most often think of the honeybee (which is actually of European origin and was imported). Or maybe we think of big, and really kind of adorable, bumblebees. We rarely think of the importance of humble little bees as pollinators. Arguably, our native wild bees are more important than the honeybees for pollination. According to the Xerces Society, “Many of our native bee pollinators are at risk, and the status of many more is unknown. Habitat loss, alteration, and fragmentation, pesticide use, climate change and introduced diseases all contribute to declines of bees.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love honeybees and want to see them survive and thrive, but we must not forget to provide habitat and food sources for our less charismatic and well-known friends in the bee world.

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