By Nan Sterman
Here’s something I’ve long wondered about. There are more than 4,000 species of bees native to North America, all of which are pollinators. With the problems that European honeybees have had in recent years, are there enough native bees to pollinate our crops instead?
Evidently I’m not the only person whose asked that question, and that’s what I get to show you in this week’s episode of A Growing Passion, Wild and Woolly: Native Bee Pollinators.
San Diego: A Native Bee Hotspot
A few years back, I read about Keng-Lou James Hung, then a PhD student at UC San Diego who was doing an inventory of San Diego County’s wild bees. Evidently, the county is a hotspot of bee diversity, which is not surprising since it is a hotspot of plant biodiversity, too.
James’ bee collection is huge! I met him in the lab right after he finished his degree. He showed me examples of native bees’ amazing variety of sizes, shapes, colors, and behaviors.
James took the crew and me to see native bees in the wild, first in the coastal chaparral, then to the desert. Usually we travel to see plants, which of course we had to find in order to find mason bees, sweat bees, bumble bees, and many others.
It took a while to change my focus but eventually I got the knack of looking for bees. And wait until you see James’ elegant acrobatics as he swings his net to capture bees to show us!
Native Bees and Agriculture
I came away even more interested in native bees and crop pollination so I reached out to Shea O’Keefe at the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Her agency is funded under the Farm Bill to do pollinator conservation. She is an advisor on the restoration of Los Jilgueros Preserve in the heart of Fallbrook, California and owned by the Fallbrook Land Conservancy.
I was surprised to hear that the Farm Bill funds native bee enhancement, but Shea explained that the USDA sees native pollinators as playing an important role in agriculture, so they pay landowners to create or retain native pollinator habitat. Los Jilgueros (Spanish for “the goldfinches”), for example, is in the middle of Fallbrook where agriculture is number one. So by creating habitat for ground nesting bees like sweat bees and tunnel nesting bees like carpenter and mason bees, there is a ready army of pollinators for the surrounding farms.
Native Bees in My Backyard
What about native bees pollinating home gardens? That was the question I put to Charlie Mohr, co-owner of Crown Bees, a company that promotes native bees, mostly mason bees, as an alternate to European honeybees as agricultural and backyard pollinators.
With the help of my friend, beekeeper James Conor McDonald, we set up a bee house in my backyard. Since these are solitary bees rather than social bees, they don’t live in hives and they don’t make honey. Instead, they nest in holes in the ground or holes in trees or in hollow plant stems – or in bee houses.
Charlie brought me mason bees still in their cocoons. We held some as they hatched out (we didn’t have to worry about getting stung), and put some into my new bee house. That way, they would remember where there home is when, in a few months, they are ready to lay eggs for the next generation.
I am thrilled to have a bee house on my back patio and I can’t wait until the bees return to lay their eggs. And if you like the idea of having a bee house in your backyard, watch our Facebook page because we’ll be giving one away in a few days.