You probably don’t consider a bee as a welcome visitor to your picnic. But the meadow you’re sitting in does. To a meadow’s mind—if meadows had minds—the more the merrier. But just how many, and what types, of bees does a meadow need to pollinate all its various flowers? Since a lot of research on bees tends to focus on bees pollinating a single type of plant, that’s a question that a team of scientists set out to answer.
They chose eleven plots of land in New Jersey—ten in wild meadows, and one planted field—and surveyed them over the course of a year. Throughout that time, they noted about 22,000 visits, including over 180 species of bees paying visits to 130 different plant species. Using that data, they estimated how frequently each type of bee pollinated each different type of plant, and found that an ecosystem relies on two-and-a-half to about seven-and-a-half times more different types of bees than any individual plant in that same ecosystem does. They also found that twenty-five percent of bee species important to an ecosystem were species that were rare to that ecosystem, highlighting the importance of locally rare species of bees.
It’s not all about the bumblebees or honeybees—obscure species like the bicolored striped-sweat bee or the southern bronze furrow bee are crucial too. Or, if you’re the average picnic-goer, as much of a minor nuisance if one lands on your sandwich. Just remember how much that beautiful variety of wildflowers needs them.