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The buzz on California’s native bees

  • Marie Narlock
  • Winnie the Pooh didn't do us any favors, dipping his paw indiscriminately into every hive for a scoop of honey. Thanks to him, bees and honey have become inextricably connected. The truth? Only honeybees make honey, and they account for a tiny minority of bees.

    There are 4,000 species of bees in the country, of which 1,600 are native to California — the most diverse bee population in the U.S. They pollinate our crops and they don't make a drop of honey. Plus, they have much more interesting names: cutters, miners, sweaters, diggers and masons. As their names imply, these bees are more like construction crew workers than members of a hive.

    California's native bees are misunderstood and underappreciated. In fact, according to the Xerces Society, native bees are North America's most important group of pollinators. Here's a group of insects born and raised literally in our backyards, diligently zooming flower to flower, untouched by the scourge of Colony Collapse Disorder that has decimated honeybee populations, and yet all we hear about are the bees that provide the honey sticks at the farmer's market.

    These bees are not the social creatures laboring away in hives. Instead, they nest underground or in hollow stems or holes in trees. They are a "solitary" species in which the female collects pollen, molds it into a pollen "loaf" and seals it and a single egg that develops into an adult bee without maternal care. No hover moms here: these girls are too busy pollinating!

    Thank your native bees.

    Like flowers? Native bees pollinate 80 percent of the flowering plants in the world. Like to eat? They help pollinate 75 percent of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in the U.S., and one out of every four bites of food. Like a strong economy? Bees account for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year. Like the way California looks? Native bees favor native plants, the backbone of California's spectacular landscape. Like picky eaters? Native bees will venture into non-native flowering plants as well. Like bee stings? Very few native bees sting!

    Want to help native bees? There's an app (and a website and a book) for that.

    The best way to keep California's bee population flourishing is to create the environment they need, and an easy way to learn — and see — firsthand how to do that is to use the resources available through UC Berkeley's www.helpabee.org site. This is where you can order a copy of "California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists" and also get more in-depth information, including current bee research projects, news and events. Another fun way to learn more about bees is to download the Wild Bee Gardens app that's available on the Apple App Store (http://appstore.com/wildbeegardens).

    These tools provide guidance and motivation for bee-friendly gardening. Considering a nesting female bee must visit 1,000 to 2,000 flowers to collect enough pollen and nectar for a single offspring, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that flowering plants are your native bees' best friends. Luckily, this is an easy recipe for making your garden look fabulous, too.

    The world has become less hospitable for our native bees (and other living creatures). Development and pesticides create serious threats, not to mention climate change. You can give California's hardworking bees a wing-up by making a few simple changes in your garden. Plant sage, rosemary, catnip, daisies, sunflowers, yarrow and a wide array of native plants that flower throughout the year including California lilac, poppies, toyon and manzanita. Leave some bare soil for nest sites.

    Log on to www.helpabee.org, order the book, and download the app. The small changes you make in your garden could mean lasting changes in the bee populations in your garden, your neighborhood and beyond.