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It’s important to protect our bee populations because their survival and reproduction provides pollination benefits for agricultural, urban and wildland environments. This is especially evident here when we welcome commercial bees to pollinate almond orchards each spring. These almond blossoms are only the beginning of the rich agricultural smorgasbord about relying on pollination from bees. Our bubble of bee knowledge is largely limited to social bees that live in colonies and are used commercially in orchards, fields, and green houses.
The most well-known in the American landscape, the honeybee (Apis mellifera L.), was first introduced by European settlers along the Eastern seaboard in the early 17th Century.
‘The Real Dirt’ is a column by various local master gardeners who are part of the UC Master Gardeners of Butte County.
Documentary evidence tells us it took over 200 years for the European honeybee to make its way to California.
Since news of colony collapse disorder has become common knowledge, many of us are paying more attention to honeybee pollinators. While we are right to be concerned about the health of commercial honeybees, native bee populations need attention too as they struggle to survive. A potential pollination catastrophe is not only a challenge for commercial beekeepers, but is also an issue homeowners should recognize.
While there are over 4,000 species of bees found in North America and California is home to 1,600 native species. These natives were here prior to the arrival of European honeybees.
European honeybees may have been introduced to California in 1853 from swarms purchased in Panama, carried across the isthmus, and shipped to San Francisco. Apparently only one swarm made the arduous trip and was delivered to F. G. Appleton, a San Jose apiarist. Until this time, diverse native bee communities were the primary pollinators, filling a wide range of ecological roles throughout our state.
Native bees are actually better adapted to meet the needs of a broad diversity of flowering plants in urban, suburban and rural areas. While one third of our food crops rely on both native bees and commercial honeybees for pollination, home gardens mostly rely on healthy native bee populations. It’s been estimated that only 25 to 40 percent of native flowering plant species are pollinated by honeybees. In order to protect ecosystem resilience and diversity, we need to protect the health of our native bees.
There’s a good chance you may not recognize native bees in your garden. Most native bees are solitary insects that live alone, although they often nest close together. Most do not have a queen (bumble bees are the exception here), and they do not make honey. About 70% nest underground; the other approximately 30% find homes in tunnels left by other insects or in the hollow stems of plants.
Most native bees are not aggressive and are not inclined to sting since unlike honeybees they are not protecting their hive. Males generally have no sting. Females may sting if swatted or stepped on, but they don’t have enough venom for the sting to be painful.
Native bees range in size from tiny to large and vary in color.
Some of the natives seen in my Paradise garden include the following:
Carpenter bees (Xylocopa varipuncta) are social, forming a small colony that nests in wood. The female valley carpenter bee is about an inch long black bee that resembles a bumble bee but is less hairy. The male, commonly known as “the teddy bear bee”, is green-eyed and blond. Small carpenter bees (Ceratina) also tunnel into wood, are nearly hairless, and are metallic-looking. Some species sport yellow markings and can be mistaken for flies.
Sweat bees (Halictidae) are attracted to salty sweat. This species of bee is metallic green, blue or black with greenish-yellow markings.
Bumble bees (Bombus). Feral honeybees and bumble bees constitute a large percentage of the bees I see daily. Like honeybees, bumble bees are social and live in small colonies, unlike the solitary native bees.
Native bees are unsung heroes. Some, such as the yellow-faced bumble bee (Bombus vosnesenskii) are better pollinators than honeybees because of their foraging behaviors and large, hairy bodies. Agricultural crop systems, as well as urban and wildland environments, benefit from native bees. The reproduction and survival of diverse species of native bees depend on all of us.
Gordon Frankie, professor and research entomologist at UC Berkeley, recommends the following to protect our native bee populations:
Plant a diversity of nectar and pollen rich plants (ten or more species)
Mass each plant in patches of ten square feet
Choose plants that bloom in succession over the growing season
Avoid excessive pruning and manicuring of ornamental flowers
Set aside bare patches of soil for nesting
Not only will these behaviors help protect our bee populations, but they will also attract other pollinators.
Many factors contribute to declining native bee numbers: increased use of chemicals; loss of wildflower meadows and other suitable habitats; more land being developed for commercial and residential property, landscapes incorporating more hardscape and fewer pollen-producing plants. Plus, homeowners are quick to call pest control companies to eradicate unwanted bugs rather than try to implement integrated pest management methods.
The solution to turning around the declining health of native bees is to act individually and proactively, as well as to raise awareness. Here are some steps we can take:
Support local nurseries that sell plants and seeds that haven’t been treated with neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides commonly used as seed treatments (NSTs) and systemic sprays in greenhouses.
Buy organic vegetable seeds or packs.
Ask if in doubt about a particular plant you’re interested in purchasing. The same applies to food. Supporting local farmers markets helps promote sustainable agriculture, and may help keep harmful pesticides out of the soil and water. Many of the venders at farmers markets do not use neonicotinoids when growing their fruits, flowers and vegetables. And they are right there at the market to talk about their farming practices.
Learning to manage your pests through IPM tactics will also help minimize adverse effects on declining bee populations. The University of California’s IPM website at http://ipm.ucanr.edu/ provides scientific, location-specific pest control information for homeowners. Homes become less toxic to pets and children when their play areas are not treated with pesticides. Homeowners can share what’s working in their gardens with neighbors and friends, which may help eliminate pesticides in other yards and gardens.
Providing food, shelter and nesting areas for wildlife in the garden will also help our native bees. Pollen is protein for bees and nectar is their carbohydrate, providing energy and maintaining water balance in their diet. Plant a variety of annuals and perennials in the garden for bees to enjoy. Provide water sources. A shallow dish filled with pebbles and water will not only provide bees with a drinking station but will help other beneficial insects as well.
It is vital that our bee populations are protected. Their survival and reproduction provide pollination benefits that sustain our planet. While native bees go unnoticed, learning more about them and protecting their natural habitats will help assist these prolific pollinators and insure our own well-being.
To learn more about bees, investigate the following sources:
The Xerces Society: http://www.xerces.org
The UCANR publication, Native Bees are a Rich Resource in Urban California Gardens: http://calag.ucanr.edu/Archive/?article=ca.v063n03p113
The North American Pollinator Protection Campaign: www.pollinator.org
The UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab: www.helpabee.org
Cindy Weiner, “Bumble Bees in the Garden,” Chico Enterprise-Record, April 2, 2021
Bee identification guide: http://www.seenature.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/FoE-UK-Bee-Identification-Guide.pdf
The UC Master Gardeners of Butte County are part of the University of California Cooperative Extension system, serving our community in a variety of ways, including 4H, farm advisors, and nutrition and physical activity programs. To learn more about UCCE Butte County Master Gardeners, and for help with gardening in our area, visit https://ucanr.edu/sites/bcmg/. If you have a gardening question or problem, call the hotline at 538-7201 or email [email protected]
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