Did you know that honeybees are not native to North America? Honeybees (Apis mellifera) have been tended since ancient times in Europe and the Middle East, but were first brought to the Americas on ships to provide honey and candle wax.
So, when the pilgrims sat down to their first Thanksgiving dinner in the autumn of 1621, there was no honey on the table. And, there was no pumpkin pie. In fact, there were none of the bee-pollinated foods that have become part of the holiday tradition, like cranberries or apples.
The first recorded arrival of honeybees in North America was one year later in 1622 when hives were brought ashore at the Virginia colony. The honeybees, stressed from their sea voyage, readily took to the pollen and nectar afforded by the Spring meadows and forests of the new colony. Some swarmed off and went feral, making their way deeper into the American heartland.
Native Americans knew their native bees, but did not have a word for the honeybees which they noticed arriving just before the settlement of Europeans. Some tribes called them the “White Man’s Fly.” It would be more than 200 years later in the mid 19th century before honeybees arrived on the West Coast and Hawaii either by migration west or by ship. Since then, both honeybees and native bees have co-existed, offering the benefit of pollinating our food and maintaining the balance of natural areas. In fact, one of the most iconic foods on our Thanksgiving tables, the cranberry, relies on pollinators to set fruit. It’s estimated that only about half of the blooms in modern cranberry bogs set fruit, and depend on the honey bee and a few species of native bees to do the job.
Pollination is also essential for pumpkins. In fact, there are some species of bee that specialize in pumpkin and squash pollen for survival. Their range matched that of the native squash plants the bees depended on for food. The squashes and pumpkins couldn’t reproduce without help from those particular bees. They depend on each other.
This Thanksgiving, we are not only thankful for our bee-pollinated bounty, but extremely thankful to all of you who faithfully sent in your observations, or at least took time to learn more about the role that bees play in our lives.
And we give thanks for pollinators. After all, without them, there would be no pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce!
PLEASE NOTE: If you are looking for a great gift, check out our beautifully made bee calendars and notecards. By doing so, you will be supporting a community focused on pollinator conservation.