By Jackie Flaten, Niles
California’s many types of native bees are resilient, hardworking and utterly integral to our ecosystems, but they do need our help. This was the key message from local expert gardener, longtime LEAF member and engineer Phil Stob, who provided a trove of great info at the LEAF Center’s monthly workshop on March 4th.

Native bees are friendly, they don’t sting (no need, as they have no hive to defend) and are easy to attract to one’s garden.
“Bees are super important,” Stob said. “One in every three spoonfuls of food we eat is pollinated by bees.”
Stob kicked off his workshop by pointing out that the biggest movement of animals anywhere in the world is happening right now, right here in California.

“The almond bloom in the Sierra foothills is a phenomenon like no other,” he said. “Eighty billion bees ¬– 1.8 million hives – are brought to the foothills” each year to pollinate this immense monoculture.

Most of the commercial harvest is pollinated by honeybees, because as social, hierarchical hive creatures they are reliable and manageable, unlike the solitary native bees.

However, native bees, while harder to control, are actually much more effective pollinators overall. These tough bees are up early in the morning and out late, they are indifferent to wind and rain, and they tend to be less than precise when landing on flowers, barreling ungracefully onto stamens and knocking pollen everywhere, which is good for nature. Honeybees, which are Asian and European natives, require more care, feeding and seasonal management to serve agriculture.

Worldwide there are about 21,000 bee species, with 1,600 species in California. More than 90 native species make their home here in the Bay Area. Stob talked about these various natives that are beneficial to our gardens and other flora, including the mason bees, carpenter bees, bumblebees (about seven different types here in the Bay), leaf cutter bees, sweat bees and orchard bees. And, of course, that friendly bee with whom he’s on a first-name basis, fuzzy “BOB” (Big Orange Bee).

He encouraged his audience to help cultivate the native bee populations using bee-friendly plants and various-sized hollow twigs and other housing options, i.e. “bee hotels.” Bees like borage, butterfly bush and buckwheat, for example.
Different populations of native bees do their work at different times of the year, and they generally tend to like specific flowers depending on what type of bee they are and what’s blooming when they’re out and about. Orchard bees are active during, naturally, the orchard bloom; leaf cutter bees toward the middle of summer.

Bee populations globally are under deadly threat, which is just as serious a problem for humans who depend on bees. Colony collapse disorder has been devastating, and scientists are still not sure what’s causing this serious problem or how to prevent it.

“About 15 years ago a mite from the Asian bee started affecting the honeybee, and now we’re seeing it in the natives, too,” Stob said. Mites cause open sores on bees’ exoskeletons, creating openings for other parasites, germs and viruses.

Pesticides and poor habitats are other big problems. Do not use neonicotinoids or Roundup or any pesticides, Stob said: “There is absolutely no reason to use pesticides in your garden.”

(From BeyondPesticides.org: “Neonicotinoids are a relatively new class of insecticides that share a common mode of action that affects the central nervous system of insects, resulting in paralysis and death. They include imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam.”)

Germicides and herbicides are also disruptive and will persist in your garden. “You’re better off pulling weeds regularly and trimming,” Stob said. Some good alternatives include sprays made with soap and water, neem oil, garlic oil or capsaicin (hot pepper) extract.
Native bees don’t have hives but they still require nests. Your garden areas can be “too clean” – bees will put leftover wood trimmings, flower stems, etc., to work as homes so it’s a good idea to leave some of your trimmings out for bee use.

Gardeners can help bees by providing dried reeds to serve as homes. The Pollinator Variety Pack has reeds to fit native bees of different sizes. You can also drill holes in older, untreated wood to give bees a nesting spot.

Stob recommended some additional reading, including these books: “California Bees & Bloom,” “Attracting Native Pollinators,” “California Native Plants for the Garden,” “The Common Bees of California,” and “The Bee-Friendly Garden.”

LEAF presents workshops the first Saturday of every month at California Nursery Historical Park, 36501 Niles Blvd., Fremont.
The next workshop is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday, April 1 – “Growing Your Own Edibles.” Presenter is Master Composter and StopWaste Educator Lori Caldwell. She is also owner/operator of CompostGal: Consulting, Landscaping & Education.