This month’s National Geographic has a brief article from an ongoing study of the DNA profiles of urban honey. While we can all observe honeybees visiting flowers in our own gardens, until recently we could only assume what nectar they were collecting for honey production. This tantalizing snippet completely blew me away.
The study, undertaken by an entomologist who founded the Urban Beekeeping Laboratory and Bee Sanctuary, is sampling urban hives from major cities, including Boston, Portland (OR), New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington DC. For each of these cities, National Geographic reports the top three plants for honeybees based on relative DNA levels.
Here’s what I found amazing about this research:
- The top sugar sources are from TREES. Not wildflowers. We don’t see bees visiting trees as easily as we see them visiting flowers, so our perceptions are biased. Over 75% of the sugar used for urban honey is from trees.
- The trees that are most popular for bee visitation are not necessarily native to those regions. Seattle bees, for instance, prefer linden and cypress trees, neither of which are part of the native coniferous forest. Likewise, the despised eucalyptus trees of San Francisco are one of the top three sugar sources.
- You’ll notice that I didn’t use the word “nectar” in describing what bees are collecting. That’s because much of the sugar they are gleaning isn’t coming from flowers. It’s coming from sap-sucking insects like aphids that produce honeydew. Bees apparently collect honeydew as well as floral nectar.
- Urban areas usually have higher plant diversity than rural areas, given the variety of woody and herbaceous plants that people use in their gardens and landscapes. The researchers speculate that this higher plant diversity may be one reason that urban hives are healthier and more productive than rural ones.
Many gardeners operate under the assumption that native plants are the best choice for gardens and landscapes. Though certain landscapes (like those undergoing ecological restoration) should only be planted with natives, there is no evidence-based reason that we shouldn’t be using non-invasive, introduced species as part of our planting palette. In fact, research has demonstrated that tree species nativity plays only a minor role in urban landscape biodiversity: most animals learn to use new resources in their environment. Honeybees, considered to be “super-generalists” insects, are demonstrating that in spades.