What is all the BUZZ about BEES? By now you’ve heard about the threat of extinction for many insect species, especially bumble bees. You’ve also heard the cry, “Save the Bees,” in reference to the European honeybee, colony collapse, the effect of chemicals and habitat loss for all pollinators. Plants and pollinators are vital to all life on the planet. Bees are champion pollinators. Of the 20,000 bees known globally, 4,000 are native to the U.S. and 1,600 are native to California! However, nearly 25% of all bee species face extinction!
As gardeners and landscape designers we have an immense opportunity to correct this trajectory. First we must understand that the European honeybee was introduced commercially as an economically valuable pollinator of high-value crops such as almonds and broccoli. As such, honeybees do not need saving! Unless you’re a backyard beekeeper producing honey commercially, most of the honeybees in our gardens are feral, they escaped their little white boxes and fled to the environment. Unfortunately for our native bees, these feral bees now compete for the same floral resources that native bees need to provision their own brood nests. While honeybees are generalists, seeking the pollen and nectar of a wide variety of flowers, they did not co-evolve with the California’s flora. Biologists consider honeybees nectar robbers! They don’t provide the critical pollination services required for fertilization but steal the reward! Seeing them in the garden isn’t necessarily a litmus test for “native bee friendly” landscapes.
Learning this can be eye opening. The declining California native bee opulation does need our help! Native bees play a vital role in agriculture as well as in the ecosystem. For example, studies have shown that they are 200 times more efficient at pollination than honeybees in agriculture, especially with apples, cherries, squash, watermelon, blueberries, and cranberries. Few know that tomatoes are only pollinated through buzz pollination by native bumble bees. Native bees are important as producers of nuts, berries, and fruits for all animals and birds in our gardens and wildlands.
So how do you provide suitable habitat for native bees? Your landscape should be chemical free, include a variety of locally native plants with bloom periods overlapping from winter to late autumn, reduce disturbance, control the use of mulch, encourage bare ground areas where a majority of native bees will build solitary ground nests, allow natural leaf litter, and provide shelter from the elements and predators by permitting plants to grow closer together. Most importantly, get outside and observe these docile and entertaining busy bees in your garden!