California Native Bees
By Laura Christman
Story by Laura Christman
Photos by Rollin Coville/UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab
THERE'S PLENTY OF BUZZ about the goodness of bees. The little guys zip from flower to flower, pollinating plants that provide us with food — tomatoes, almonds, lemons, melons and much more — as well as beauty.
European honey bees get the glory. You know the ones: Hang out in hives, have a queen and make honey. Native bees hum along under the radar, but they are power pollinators, too.
“We really want people to know the importance native bees have,” says Marissa Chase, manager of the University of California Berkeley Urban Bee Lab.
California has 1,600 native bee species — a jumbled group of big, blimpy, tiny, shiny, fuzzy, sleek, drab and flashy characters. Native bees are generally solitary. Rather than hives, they nest in hollow stems, pieces of wood or underground.
Colony Collapse Disorder is a threat to European honey bees, which were introduced centuries ago. It isn’t a worry for native bees, who don’t live in colonies. But all bee populations have been hurt by habitat loss, pesticides and climate change, Chase says.
To better understand connections between native bees, plants and people, UC Berkeley researchers launched the Urban California Native Bee Survey in seven cities in 2005.
“The urban environment was considered kind of a dead zone,” Chase says. But it turns out that plants in cities are important foraging resources for many types of bees.
Redding was brought into the survey in 2009. Monitoring was done several times at Turtle Bay Exploration Park’s gardens. In 2013, Chico was among five cities added. Monitoring is at Gateway Science Museum’s native plant pollinator garden and at private gardens in Chico.
“We go about twice a month, starting around March and through August,” Chase says.
Researchers note which species visit which plants. Some bees are captured for identification in the lab.
“You get really good at it,” Chase says of netting bees. “You develop your bee-eye.”
Chase, who grew up in Red Bluff, is a molecular environmental biology major with a concentration in entomology, and plans to earn a doctorate degree. “It’s really a great lab to be a part of,” she says of Berkeley’s Bee Lab. “My favorite part is going out and actually collecting them. They are beautiful creatures to watch.”
Among her favorites are charismatic bumble bees and ultra green sweat bees, which have bright-blue/metallic-green coloring. She admires the spunky spirit of the wool carder bee — aka, head-bonker bee.
“It will collide with a honey bee to knock it over,” Chase says of the territorial bee.
Native bees evolved with native plants. Some are specialists that limit nectar and pollen gathering to very few plants. Others are generalists that flit to many plants, including non-native species.
Gardens with a mix of plants blooming over many months help make up for natural habitat lost to houses, businesses, roads and other development. Bee-friendly landscapes offer nesting areas, are located in a sunny spots and shun pesticides.
“California Bees & Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists” was published in 2014 and draws on research from the Bee Lab.
“It contains a lot of great information on how to garden for native bees,” Chase says.
The lab’s work also is the source for “Common Bees in California,” a pocket-sized set of cards of bees likely to be found in California gardens.
“California Bee-Friendly Garden Recipes” is another UC resource. The free 17-page guide can be downloaded by searching “native bees” at www.anrcatalog.ucanr.edu. The “recipes” are instructions for creating gardens to draw bees, such as a container garden or food garden.
Chase understands that fears of being stung might cause some to question having a yard with lots of bees buzzing about.
“My mom is allergic to bees,” she says. “It’s definitely something to keep in mind. But I’ve spent so much time collecting and handling bees and I’ve never gotten stung.”
Only male bees can sting, she notes. And bees, unlike wasps, are not aggressive.
“They are friendly,” Chase says. “They are really not out to sting you.”
(The exception: Africanized honey bees, which are not, thankfully, in Northern California.) •
UC Berkeley Bee Lab, www.helpabee.org
A few bee favorites for North State gardens:
• Shasta Daisy
• Gaillardia “Oranges and Lemons”
• California poppy
• Salvia “Indigo Spires”
• Gumweed (Grindelia stricta)
• Santa Rosa Island sage (Salvia brandegeei)
• Black sage (Salvia mellifera)
• Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)