Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Buzz about Bees

By Sandi Funke
 Photo by Jo-Ann Ordano 

© California Academy of Sciences

There’s been a lot in the press lately about bees and their decline. But why are bees important? And what can be done to stem the tide in the decline of these essential insects?

One of the main reason scientists and farmers are so concerned about the decline of bees is because they are very important pollinators. In exchange for getting “rewards,” from plants such as nectar or nutritious pollen, pollinators move pollen from one flower to another. Bees carry pollen on hairs and also special pollen-collecting body structures. When pollen lands on top of a flower’s pistil, a process begins that eventually leads to the flower growing into mature fruit. 

According to the Xerces Societythe services that bees and other pollinators provide allow 70 percent of all flowering plants to reproduce. In terrestrial ecosystems bumble bees are considered vital to the survival of countless other plants and animals. In addition to pollinating wildflowers, bumblebees’ pollination services help grow the seeds and fruit that allow for reproduction f plants and feed numerous birds and mammals. Bees are also very important pollinators for food crops.

Photo by © Charles Reeder
In California almonds, alfalfa, apples, apricot, avocados, blueberries, citrus, cherry, melons, nectarine, peach and plum are all pollinated by bees. These crops are pollinated by both honey bees and native bees. Honey bees are non-native and were introduced from Europe. In the Bay Area, native bees derive from five different bee families and are primarily solitary bees. Many people are familiar with bumble bees but other native bees that are also around include digger bees, carpenters bees, mason bees and halictids as well as others.

According to the Pollinator Projectthe U.S. has lost over 50% of its managed honeybee colonies over the past 10 years.  Much of this is due to Colony Collapse Disorder.  Colony Collapse Disorder is a set of symptoms for which the cause and cure remain elusive. Native bumble bees are also thought to be in steep decline. This may be due to a disease agent that is being promulgated from bumble bees that are being commercially raised. According to the Xerces Society, habitat loss, alteration, and fragmentation, pesticide use, and introduced diseases all are contributing to the decline of bees.

Photo by George W. Robinson
© California Academy of Sciences
Scientists are pointing to a number of measures community members can take to help bees. Xerces Society runs the online Pollinator Conservation Resource Center. The center has region based hands-on information to help gardeners, farmers, and landscape professionals enact practices that conserve bees. Included on the site are plant lists, information about pesticides, native bee nest guides, and conservation guides and fact sheets. The Urban Bee Gardens website is a local Bay Area resource. This site describes that bee families that occur in our area, shares bee monitoring protocols, and includes plant recommendations for the San Francisco Bay Area. One of the authors of this fantastic resource is Dr. Gordon Frankie.

On Friday, March 1st, Pepperwood will be hosting Dr. Gordon Frankie for a free lecture on the relationship between flowers and bees. Dr. Frankie is a professor and research entomologist in the Division of Insect Biology, College of Natural Resources, University of California, Berkeley. His specialty is behavioral ecology of solitary bees in wildlands and urban environments of California and Costa Rica. He also teaches conservation and environmental problem-solving at U.C. Berkeley. Dr. Frankie has conducted bee surveys with researchers and citizen scientists as well. He is author of Native Bees and their Flowers in Urban California which came out in 2011 from California Press.