Every day, every week, every month, and every year is “officially” labelled or designated for some cause or topic. This week it is National Pollinator Week. By any standard, it is a good topic because our food depends on pollinators, the most common one known to most of us are bees, although they include birds, butterflies, moths, beetles, hummingbirds, wasps, and mosquitoes to mention a few. We will focus on bees in this article.
Here in California, we have 1,600 bees that range from the “infamous killer bees” to bees that range in size from tiny (a ¼ inch) to 1-inch large carpenter bees. Nationally, it is estimated that there are 4,000 native bees in North America. Worldwide there are more than 20,000 bee species. All play a vital role as pollinators. Bumblebees, Sweat bees, Carpenter bees, Mason bees, Leafcutter bees, and Digger Bees are some examples of native bees.
Bees raised in beehives for honey production and pollination are not native to North America but were brought over by European settlers who arrived in the early 1600’s. Prior to that, there were no honeybees in North America. The two species kept in hives are the western honey bee (Apis mellifera) and the eastern honey bee (Apis cerana).
Native bees are quite different from honeybees. They are solitary and only the females gather pollen, working all day to gather nectar and pollen, the ingredients for ‘bee bread’ on which she lays an egg to provide food for the next generation. Solitary bees must work quickly because they typically live no more than two months depending on the species, and typically only four to six weeks for the adult males.
Regardless of the type of bee, native or European, we should want to protect them all and allow them to thrive.
Recommendations include planting a variety of flowers that grow from late fall through summer and provide a mix of pollen and nectar. Native plants are preferred for native bees.
Sunflowers, as well as members the mint family (Lamiaceae), and native shrubs such as ceanothus and manzanita are also important native pollinator plants. Examples of excellent nonnative bee plants include rosemary, lavender, and cosmos. Check with the local Native Plant Society for more information.
Studies at UC Berkeley show that it is better to plant a group of plants is more attractive to bees than an individual plant.
Access to water and mud puddles are important for native bee species for both hydration and to obtain minerals from the soil. Some bees use mud in nest building.
Most native bees are ground nesters, so it is important to leave some bare ground area in your garden. Mulch can be a problem as bees cannot dig through mulch.
Some native bees like to live in hollows and cavities found in nature. Remember native bees are solitary, unlike their European honeybee cousins.
Pesticides and herbicides are, unsurprisingly, not good for bees. Avoid them completely if possible. The Internet can provide some great information in this area. And if you do decide to use chemical products, be sure to carefully read the instructions and never apply them when the pollinators are active, such as late in the evening when bees are not active.
Both UC Berkeley and UC Davis have information readily available online to use. Berkley’s Urban Bee Lab site is a great place to start, as is pollinator.org. A best resource locally is the Bristlecone Native Plant Society website or their Facebook page–Bristlecone Chapter, CNPS–for more information.