The Augochloropsis anonyma looks like a weird bee. It's got that familiar bee shape—tilted abdomen, oblong eyes—but its body fuzz is white, instead of yellow; its eyes are white; and its skin is iridescent jade-aqua-blue-purple. It has all the colors of an oil puddle in the sun.
Yet the real weirdos are our familiar yellow-and-black honeybees, says U.S. Geological Survey biologist Sam Droege. The Augochloropsis is one of 4,000 bee species native to the U.S. Honeybees, on the other hand, are more recent settlers that European farmers brought to America in the 1600s. Surveys done in the past few years have found that both types of bees contribute to pollinating U.S. crops, with native bees playing an especially important role for American plants such as pumpkins, blueberries and tomatoes.
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Droege considers honeybees weird because their habits differ from those of most native bees, which tend to be solitary or "primitively colonial," Droege says. "The whole multi-year queen, waggle dance, hive, honey, etc. are absent from our native species," he wrote to Popular Science in an email. Only native bumblebees, which comprise about 40 species in North America, have a formal colonial social structure with workers and queens.
Honey- and bumblebees' social structures mean people are able to cultivate them in hives and drive them around to places that need them. They're especially important in industrial farmlands, such as those in central California, where there's little habitat left for native bees.
Fields on the East Coast and others that are surrounded by some native plants, however, may be pollinated partly or mostly by native bees. In 2009, researchers studied 11 apple farms in New York State and found 81 species of native bees. Small farms could depend entirely on native bees, though larger farms required honeybees. The natives may be especially effective at pollinating foods native to the Americas, including cherries and cranberries.
Another major difference between native and honeybees is that the natives don't suffer from colony collapse disorder, a mysterious condition that's killed off, on average, one-third of domestic honeybee colonies every year since 2006. That's because native bees don't suffer from the same pests and viruses that honeybees do and they don't have the same social order, Droege says. Nevertheless, native bees may be threatened by pesticide residues, but that hasn't been well studied, Droege says.
The U.S. Geological Survey has set up a program to capture and record bee species all over the continent. The survey will ramp up this winter to include 50 collection sites. Droege hopes to collect enough data to know whether native bee populations are rising or falling. In the meanwhile, he and his collectors have gotten great photos of Augochloropsis and other weird natives. Check them out above.
Correction: This article originally listed eggplant as an example of a plant that's native to the Americas and better pollinated by native bee. Eggplants are not native to the Americas. However, they do require bumblebees to pollinate them. Domestic honeybees don't make the correct movements eggplant flowers need. I apologize for the error.