By Mary K. Hanson
Most likely you recognize the European honey bees when you see them, but did you know that California also boasts more than 1,600 species of native bees? There are actually more than 300 species just in Yolo County alone, and like honey bees, these guys lend a significant hand in pollinating local crops.
Recognizing many of the native bee species may be a little difficult for those of us without an entomology background, but there are some real standouts like the blue orchard bees, the metallic sweat bees and the valley carpenter bees — which, at about 1 inch in length, are the largest bees in California. The female carpenter bees are shiny black, but the stingless males are fat, fuzzy and golden blond with large, green compound eyes. They are often referred to as “teddy bear bees.”
At the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven in Davis, I was lucky enough to speak with Robbin Thorp about bee conservation and how we can all help to preserve the species that are native to our region. I also got up close to some of the teddy bear bees.
Some bee species are dwindling in numbers due to loss of habitat, disease and malnutrition. In Northern California, for example, four species of bumblebees are already on the endangered list and one, the Franklin’s bumblebee, may now be extinct. The good news is that it’s not too late to help our native bees. You can even create native-bee-friendly zones right in your own back yard.
Unlike honey bees that live together in massive colonies, native bees are generally solitary and unobtrusive guests. They live in small burrows in the ground or in narrow tunnels in wood. In your garden, you can encourage native bees to nest by providing them with patches of sunny, untilled, well-drained soil to burrow into. Or you can set up “bee condos” for them by drilling tunnels into chunks of wood, and putting those in your garden.
After mating, the female bee will enter her underground hideout or the bee condo you’ve created, and will lay her eggs on little balls of doughy pollen. She’ll then seal up the brood chamber with mud, pieces of leaves or resin so the babies are safe and well-fed while they’re developing.
Most native bees don’t live for more than a season, and they spend a lot of time in their burrows while they’re maturing, so you may only see them on the wing for a month or two. The best time to see the teddy bear bees, for example, is between May and June in the late afternoon. Keep in mind that while the female bees have stingers, they usually only use them if they get trapped somewhere (like inside your clothing).
Thorp reminds us that native bees are “vegans” who need sugar from nectar and protein from pollen to survive, so planting a garden with that in mind will help sustain the bees in your area. Almond trees, apple trees, acacia, germander and salvia plants produce a lot of flowers the bees really go for. They also like thyme, rosemary and most forms of daisy-like flowers.
If you’re planting rose bushes, keep in mind that there isn’t enough pollen in the fancy multi-petal hybrid roses to feed the bees; they need roses with the simple five-petal blossoms on them that have lots of anthers. Plant for blooms throughout the year and you’ll always have a supply of food for the bees.
All of this will help ensure pollination of your flowers and fruit trees, and will turn your back yard into a friendly place for the bees to be!
— Mary K. Hanson is an amateur naturalist and photographer who is serves as executive assistant to Tuleyome’s executive director. Tuleyome Tales is a monthly publication of Tuleyome, conservation organization with offices in Woodland and Napa. For more information, visit www.tuleyome.org.