The Blue Sage Bee is unusual. Over millions of years, it has developed an exclusive relationship with a common flower of the prairie, Blue Sage. It will only feed its larva the pollen of this one plant. If this plant is not present, this native bee species cannot survive. The Blue Sage Bee was one of the surprise finds from a Native Bee Survey done at Jerry Smith Park Prairie in 2016.
Kansas City Wildlands, with support from Burroughs Audubon Club, and Westport Garden Club through Garden Club of America, enlisted bee expert Mike Arduser to survey what native bees lived at two Kansas City Missouri Park reserves, Jerry Smith Park Prairie in south Kansas City and Swope Park’s Rocky Point Glade. What was found surprised even the bee experts. Eighty-nine different bee species were found. Two of them had never been found in Missouri before. Twenty-one of them were different types of specialist bees, like the Blue Sage Bee.
There were a surprisingly large number of specialist bees found in the samples. The different bee specialists exclusively visit different flowers for pollen. One bee specialist only gathered pollen from Thistle plants, another from Bellflower plants, another from Sunflower plants, and another from Aster plants.
By visiting just one type of plant, the specialist bees efficiently pollinate them and help maintain the diverse ecosystem. The flowers produce the right nutrients in their pollen for the developing bee larva so the bees successfully reproduce. Both plant and bee benefit.
The study found many other types of native bees. It found one species that amazingly only nests in empty snail shells. Also were found fifteen types of Digger Bees, six types of Bumblebees, twenty-one types of Sweat Bees, ten types of Leaf-Cutter bees, six types of Mason Bees, and ten types of bees that nest only in other bee’s nests.
Mike Arduser explains that a community profile of the native bees on a site can be used as a yardstick to measure the vitality of a prairie remnant. For example, Rocky Point Glade had a lower percentage of specialist bee species in its sample compared to Jerry Smith Park. Mike Arduser theorizes that is because Rocky Point is a small, isolated site that had more environmental impacts before management began and it is slower to reestablish diversity.
According to the Native Bee Study, the types of bees found indicate that Jerry Smith Park Prairie is “a high quality, functioning, Tallgrass Prairie remnant of regional significance”. Historically, forty-eight percent of Jackson County Missouri was once covered in Tallgrass Prairie. With development, the Tallgrass Prairie has been eliminated and the remnant at Jerry Smith Park is the only original native prairie left in Jackson County.
There must be a diverse habitat to support a diverse population of native bees. Native bees have different flight ranges depending on their size. Some can fly a mile to search for pollen. Others can only fly a hundred feet. Some dig deep nest tunnels in the ground. Others dig shallow tunnels or need a certain soil type to dig in. Some make tunnels in wood for nests. Others use existing tunnels or cracks to nest. Some require grass clumps to nest and one snail shells. Some have long tongues and can reach deep in a trumpet shape flower for nectar. Others have short tongues and need flat flower shapes to reach the nectar. Native bees often require different habitat types to nest, feed, and hibernate. The study emphasized to maintain a diverse prairie habitat for these native bees, there must be ongoing management.
Next August the Blue Sage Bee will be visiting the Blue Sage Plants at Jerry Smith Park Prairie. If you get a chance to visit and observe, you will hear the bee’s high pitch buzz before you see it flying. It will be continuing the million-year- old pattern of pollinating the flowers and feeding its larva on this rare native prairie.