Native Bees

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bee“Go native.” That was the position taken at a recent Bee Symposium in Sebastopol, CA hosted by BeeKind and The Partners for Sustainable Pollination. The symposium hall was filled to capacity with beekeepers and wanna-bees. Lectures by apiary luminaries Dr. Robbin Thorp, Randy Oliver, Serge Labesque, and Kathy Kellison covered current scientific and anecdotal info on honeybee health and management and the importance of bee habitat.

Dr. Thorp from UC Davis gave an extensive survey of the native bees in our midst. The U.S. is home to some 4,000 species nationwide, but the numbers vary by region. New York is home to about 400 species while California’s diversified climate hosts some 1,600. Of course the non-native European Honeybees are our favorite pollinators – they give us wonderful honey, and they are so, well, organized. Honeybees pollinate 70 percent of our food crops but disease has threatened their numbers so greater attention is now being given to native, non-domesticated bees such as the Bumblebee, Carpenter, Sweat, and Mason Bee, which are also important pollinators. Native bees are primarily solitary; only about 10 percent gather in hives. Some are cuckoos (stealing other insects’ nests) but most nest in old wood or in the ground.

The dark specter of Colony Collapse Disorder still hovers. The exact cause of the mysterious deaths of huge numbers of hives in the last five years has yet to be divined, but many beekeepers, including Randy Oliver of Grass Valley, CA, who has pioneered non-chemical treatment of bee diseases, agree that, along with toxic and viral loads on their immune system, a loss of forage is contributing to bees’ decline. Forage is food: the pollen and nectar bees find in fields, gardens, forests, and wild areas. Bees turn pollen into protein they eat; nectar into honey. The loss of forage is due to a combination of human development that removes natural habitat, landscaping devoid of diverse flowering plants, and the use of broad-based herbicides that kill all weeds.

Gardeners can encourage forage and habitat for honey and native bees this spring:

Plant native plants. Visit your local native plant nursery or check the Pollinator Partnership’s guide for a regional selection of suggested plants.

To encourage wildlife and a variety of pollinators, leave out some old wood or install a Mason Bee nesting box.

Leave open ground. Gardeners know the importance of mulching plants to conserve water and suppress weeds; it also benefits native bees to leave some open ground.

If you are not a gardener, you can still help bees by doing the following:

Save swarms: don't call an exterminator, call a beekeeper.

Support organic farming and agriculture that doesn’t use herbicides.

Support local beekeepers by buying local honey and hive products.

Observe nature. Appreciate. Repeat.

- Heidi Lewis


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