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The original vision for a special exhibit featuring bees came from a museum volunteer, according to Stone. “She imagined a room draped in golden, honey-colored cloth, with hexagons everywhere and an observation hive of honeybees busily buzzing away in a corner. Like most of us, she was focused on the highly visible, newsworthy honeybee.”

But honeybees aren’t native to North America, she said. Because of the value of their honey and wax, they were brought here very early during European colonization. Some escaped and started living in the wild, but most remain under human care in backyards, on small farms and in industrialized agriculture, she said.

Stone said she knew that, in order to fulfill the museum’s mission of connecting people to nature in the Northwoods, the exhibit would have to focus more on native bees, so she contacted Heather Holm, whose first book, “Pollinators of Native Plants,” has been used as a resource during planting of the museum’s rain gardens and pollinator gardens. Her second book, “Bee: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide,” also was useful in organizing information for the exhibit.

“My first conversation with Heather turned our exhibit on its head,” Stone said. “Honeybees, she told us, can actually compete with native bees for resources. Honeybee workers travel two miles or more from their hive to gather nectar and pollen, and they visit a wide variety of flowers. Most of our native bees are single, working mothers who will try to forage as close to their nests as possible, which may mean only flying tens of feet away. A typical hive of honeybees can gather the equivalent amount of food that 100,000 solitary bees would need over the course of the summer.

“This information was shocking to me and the rest of our exhibit development committee, especially since most of the hype, up until very recently, has been about colony collapse disorder and the plight of honeybees. Honeybees are a necessary component of our industrial, monoculture-based agricultural system, and I do love honey, but native bees are integral to the thriving of our global ecosystems.”

In the new exhibit in Cable, six Bee Buddies serve as guides, and people can take a picture with their favorite bee and select a Bee Buddy card to carry through the exhibit, watching for their Bee Buddy’s symbol as they explore stations about diversity, pollination, the seasons, nesting and conservation.

About 90 percent of flowering plants need animals to pollinate them, and that includes about a third of food crops. While hummingbirds, bats, butterflies, moths and other insects pollinate some flowers, bees are the true champions of pollen collection, according to Stone.

Pollen is the male reproductive cell of a flower, and in order to fertilize the ovule and produce a viable seed, it needs to land on the stigma of another flower of the same species. Pollen also is a rich source of protein, so native bees have evolved elaborate systems of branched hairs, electrical charges and special stomachs to help them transport pollen back to their nests. Once there, the female bee mixes pollen with nectar and saliva to create “bee bread.” This organic baby food is stored with each new egg to feed the larva once it hatches.

In this symbiotic relationship between bees and flowers — honed over 125 million years — it’s no accident that the pollen-carrying adaptations of native bees are somewhat messy. It’s essential that dusty little poofs of pollen shake off at each new flower.

Some native bees, including bumble bees, mining bees, sweat bees and carpenter bees, collect pollen via “buzz pollination.” By grasping a flower, detaching their flight muscles from their wings and buzzing loudly, they shake pollen out of the flower. Some flowers — including tomatoes, eggplants, cranberries and blueberries — need this technique for effective pollination.

Stone said pollinators support plant communities, ensuring a healthy and adequate supply of food and shelter in ecosystems. Plants pollinated by bees provide fruits, seeds and vegetation at the base of the food web, and their energy is carried up the food chain as carnivores eat herbivores. Those plants also provide shelter and habitat for almost everything.

“It worries me that more than half of native bee species are declining, and nearly one in four species are at increasing risk of extinction,” she said. “Our industrial agricultural practices are partly to blame, but habitat destruction and pesticide use are problems on many scales.”

Solutions to the problem also are also applicable on many scales: “You can provide habitat by planting native flowers that will bloom throughout the spring, summer and fall. But be wary of cultivars because they often lack the specific cues or abundant nectar to attract bees,” Stone said. “As you tend your yard, avoid using pesticides whenever possible. Leaving parts of your yard ‘messy’ will provide bees with bare soil, rotting logs, fallen leaves, dried plant stems and other important components of their habitat for nesting and overwintering.”

The museum has planned special programming in conjunction with the exhibit, including monthly Biodiversity Tours and Pollinator Parties at the Cable Community Farm just north of Cable. Tour participants will view native flower gardens planted for pollinators, the Community Orchard, the Community Vineyard and the beekeeping operation. Pollinator Party participants can help monitor pollinators for the Great Sunflower Project and care for the farm’s native flower gardens.

The “Bee Amazed” exhibit will run through March 2019 at the Cable Natural History Museum, 13470 County Road M, Cable. The museum will celebrate bees throughout the spring and summer through related programming, including an exhibit open house from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, May 26, and Native Plant Sale on May 26-27.