Aug 02, 2018 10:39AM
By Julie Ross
Bring on the Bees!
By Julie Ross
A couple of years ago we had our front lawn and (hideous) juniper hedge ripped out and replaced with drought-tolerant plants, mostly California natives. Aside from the significant decrease in our water bill, we have noticed other favorable changes: more insect-eating Western fence lizards, hummingbirds, and butterflies along with some new visitors to our yard – native bees.
There are 1600 bee species native to California. Unlike the more familiar non-native honeybees, which have been introduced to North America from Europe, our native bees do not live in hives. California bees are solitary or live in small social groups. Many species burrow underground, some hang out on flowers to sleep, and others burrow in wood. And they don’t make honey.
A critical ability our homegrown bees do share with honeybees is pollination. Their search for food – pollen for the protein and nectar for the carbs – takes them from flower to flower, fertilizing field crops, orchards, and home gardens along the way.
Scientists have been working with California farmers to use native bees in crop production to offset the “colony collapse disorder” that began plaguing honeybees in 2006. A clear cause of the mysterious decline in honeybees has not been determined but is believed to be a complex combination of pesticides, parasites, pathogens, including bacteria and or/viruses and poor nutrition, which can result from bees being used to pollinate a single crop type, therefore, consuming a diet lacking a diversity of nutrients.
In experiments to put native bees to work, farmers have provided space to create native bee habitat around crops and orchards with native flowering plants. In one such initiative, more than 60 native bee species were identified in a single farm in Brentwood after only three years -- just one of many success stories emerging in modern-day farming using natural and sustainable techniques.
To learn more about our fascinating and essential local bees, there are two excellent articles published in Bay Nature magazine and available online: “In the Key of Bee, Singing the Praises of Native Bees,” (April 1, 2009) and “Spreading the Buzz About Native Bees” (June 19, 2014). Both articles feature interviews with bee guru Gordon W. Frankie, professor and research entomologist at UC Berkeley.
Frankie launched the UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab website www.helpabee.org, which is chock full of information on creating and maintaining bee habitats at home – what to plant for seasonal bee gardening, how to build bee boxes and condos (great summer project!), and simple steps to take in welcoming native bees, which can be as simple as leaving a sunny patch of ground mulch-free to encourage burrowing bee species to take up residence.
For a fun day learning about honeybees and other pollinators, head over to Lindsay Wildlife Experience in Walnut Creek on Saturday, August 18, for the annual Bee Bop event. There is an active honeybee observation hive housed in Plexiglas on the exhibit floor where you can see all the action, including watching bees leave the hive through a clear tunnel to pollinate flowers outside the building and return with loaded pollen sacs or “baskets,” located on their hind legs. There will be special programs all day.
Enjoy the rest of summer, especially the amazing fruits and vegetables of the season, courtesy of bees, butterflies, and nectar-loving birds. (And let’s not forget the agave-pollinating bats for those of you who enjoy tequila!)