do birds and bees get along

John Muir was a master at observing the interconnectedness of nature. To the rest of us mere mortals, these connections are not always obvious. Such is the case for the relationship between birds, wildflowers, white-tailed deer, and our most important pollinator of both natural and agricultural plants – bees. Due to a combination of factors including a lack of “top-line” predators and the creation of abundant edge habitat by humans, Northeastern forest ecosystems, including several NPS I&M Northeast Temperate Network (NETN) parks, are becoming increasingly impacted by an over-abundant deer population. Stresses on area forests are only likely to intensify further due to climate change and the resulting phenological shifts which may throw off the synchronicity of native bee emergence with flowering times of wildflowers and plants.

Morristown National Historical Park was chosen to be part of a study looking at the relationship between white-tailed deer browsing habits, wildflower availability and emergence times, and insect pollinator populations – particularly bees. As generalist herbivores, deer preferentially feed on certain plants, trees, and shrubs which reduces the diversity and abundance of flowering plants. Damage can be so severe that many ecologists consider the over abundant deer population to be the single greatest threat to the long-term health of northeastern forests. In Morristown NHP, bee communities were surveyed in order to study potential “trophic cascades” (an ecological process that starts at or near the top of the food-chain and eventually makes its way to the bottom) of deer feeding habits on floral resources also used by bees.

Insect pollinators, such as several bee species, are likely “keystone” species that are integral to the long-term success of plant and ecosystem restoration.

Studies of trophic cascades, where one or two keystone species greatly influences the ecology and behavior of dozens of other species, is relatively new to science. In the past it was thought that an ecosystem was built from the bottom up. Restoration projects often focused on the plant community with the belief that non-target species would also be restored once a critical mass of healthy plants had been established. Scientists believed that when this happened, insects, small mammals, birds, larger herbivores and finally the top predators fell neatly into a balance with each other. This may have been putting the cart before the horse, however, since some non-target species (such as insect pollinators) may actually be integral to the long-term success of plant restoration.

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Excessive deer feeding results in distinct “browse lines” that indicate the animals’ maximum height. Non-preferred species like ferns and invasive plants are typically found covering the forest floor.

John Muir was an expert at seeing how everything in nature is interrelated. These connections aren’t always evident to the rest of us mortals. This is the situation with birds, wildflowers, white-tailed deer, and bees, our most significant pollinator of both agricultural and natural plants. Owing to a number of variables, such as the absence of “top-line” predators and the widespread development of edge habitat by humans, Northeastern forest ecosystems, including multiple NPS I Climate change and the ensuing phenological changes are only likely to exacerbate the stresses already placed on the area forests. These changes could potentially disrupt native bee emergence synchrony with wildflower and plant flowering times.

Morristown National Historical Park was selected to participate in a study examining the relationships between the availability and emergence dates of wildflowers, the browsing habits of white-tailed deer, and the populations of insect pollinators, especially bees. Due to their preference for eating specific plants, trees, and shrubs, deer, being generalist herbivores, decrease the variety and quantity of blooming plants. Because of the potential for severe damage, many ecologists believe that the overabundance of deer poses the biggest threat to the long-term health of the forests in the northeast. In order to investigate potential “trophic cascades” (an ecological process that begins at or near the top of the food chain and eventually travels to the bottom) of deer feeding habits on floral resources also utilized by bees, bee communities in Morristown NHP were surveyed.

A number of bee species are among the “keystone” insect pollinators that are probably essential to the long-term viability of plant and ecosystem restoration.

Park scientists were taken aback by the effects of wolves’ predation on the park’s abundant herds of deer and elk when they were reintroduced to the Yellowstone ecosystem.

Research on trophic cascades, in which the ecology and behavior of numerous other species are significantly influenced by one or two keystone species, is still relatively new in the scientific community. An ecosystem was once believed to be constructed from the bottom up. In the hope that non-target species would also be restored after a critical mass of healthy plants had been established, restoration projects frequently concentrated on the plant community. According to scientific theory, when this occurred, larger herbivores, birds, insects, small mammals, and ultimately apex predators all neatly fell into balance with one another. Though some non-target species, like insect pollinators, may actually be essential to the long-term success of plant restoration, this may have been putting the cart before the horse.

Wolves = More Fish

The events that followed the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 are arguably the most well-known illustration of a trophic cascade. Wolves had been gone from the Yellowstone ecosystem for nearly 70 years before they were reintroduced. During that period, the number of deer and elk increased unnaturally, and in spite of the park’s efforts to manage them, they nearly completely destroyed the vegetation in some areas (does this sound familiar?). Numerous intriguing and occasionally surprising events started to happen when wolves returned to the area. They started hunting deer and elk, which came as no surprise, but more importantly, they altered the animals’ behavior drastically. Elk and deer herds began to stay away from areas of the park that the wolves could hunt them down the easiest, especially gorges and valleys. The vegetation there began to grow again almost immediately, and in just six years, the height of some trees quadrupled. After decades of suffering over barren, browsed valleys, aspen, willow, and cottonwood tree saplings soon filled the spaces. Many migratory bird species began to repopulate after this. Beaver activity and population growth also increased, opening up niches for other species. They created ponds that served as habitat for fish, amphibians, ducks, otters, and muskrats. Grizzly bears had more fall forage to help them gain weight as berry-bearing shrubs recovered, and they began surviving winters in larger numbers. Most surprisingly, perhaps, the wolves also altered the flow of rivers throughout the park. River meandering decreased as streamside vegetation increased and erosion decreased. More riffle areas and pools were made; these areas are perfect for fish and other wildlife habitat. It appears that wolves are inextricably linked to every other element of the Yellowstone ecosystem. Muir may have been on to something.

Overbrowsing plants and shrubs by deer reduces the amount of space available for many bird species to nest, including the vibrant Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Of course, there have been other ramifications and controversy surrounding the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. However, it did teach scientists that a top-line predator had to be reintroduced into the equation for Yellowstone to have a fully functional, self-regulating trophic system. In most areas of the eastern half of the country, top-line predators like wolves and mountain lions have been absent from the ecosystem for well over a century. Although eastern coyotes have started to partially fill that void, the deer population has skyrocketed throughout the region. Bees in particular are under extreme pressure from deer to use the floral resources available to them, so there are worries that their numbers may be declining. Climate change and habitat destruction are two examples of human influences that are making the issue worse. Numerous insect species rely solely on one or two host plant varieties. Increased diversity in plant species also means more bee, butterfly, and other insect species, which can affect the quantity and variety of wildlife and bird species in the area.

Too Many Deer = Less Birds to Hear

Bees primarily forage in the early spring in the forests of the Northeast, visiting the first wildflowers in the understory. Deer browsing in some forests and competition from invasive plant species have reduced the diversity of understory wildflowers, but the precise effects of this loss on bee communities are still unknown. The effects on birds have been demonstrated, though, by data gathered by Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology and the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, which demonstrated that excessive deer browsing on understory vegetation can make it very difficult for shrub and ground-nesting birds, including Black-throated Blue Warblers, Hermit Thrushes, White-throated Sparrows, and Wood Thrushes, to find suitable nesting sites. Bee nesting availability, both in terms of quantity and quality, is impacted by deer browsing. Deer may decrease the number of possible cavities for bees to build their nests by selectively feeding on shrubs. This may also increase the amount of bare ground available, which may help bees that nest below ground.

Some bee species are particularly dependent on certain wildflowers. wild geranium. This purple flower is the preferred food source for mining, mason, sweat, and other bee species.

FAQ

Are birds and bees enemies?

Birds are predators of bumblebees. In temperate forests, birds and bees use tree cavities for their nesting activities.

Can birds and bees live together?

Birds and bees may live together but regardless of what your parents may have said they will not mate.

Do birds bother bees?

Over 6,000 species of birds are true insectivores-birds that eat bees and other insects as the mainstay of their food source. Is this a problem for our failing bee populations? In general, no – birds do not represent a major threat. But, some types of birds are specialists when it comes to insects hunting.

Do birds get stung by bees?

In conclusion, the hematological and biochemical changes experienced by pigeons who received multiple bee stings were similar to those of mammals; however, avian species might be more sensitive to bee stings than mammals.