Wake Up! And Save The Flowers

Supporting Wild Bee Populations

By Stephanie Antinoro, Communications Coordinator

Micralictoides ruficaudus. These words are not a magical spell, though with some flair they may roll off the tongue that way. No, not a spell but indeed something equally fantastic. This is the name of a bee: one of the more than 1,600 native bee species found in California, that we know of. Worldwide, there are 20,000 bee species, and of those only eight are honeybees. Most people don’t realize that the call to “Save the bees!” refers not only to honeybees but to these wild species as well.

Hoplitis albifrons, Mariposa CA, 2017. Dark Bee. Some bees are all black, black hairs, black integument (skin), little reflection. Collected by Claire Kremen’s bee team and photographed by Anders Croft.

Beekeepers don’t keep any of the other 19,992ish wild bee species. There’s no money in it. The vast majority of bees are solitary, meaning they don’t operate as part of a hive. From a honey-making standpoint, this is inefficient. But still, scarcity of product could lead to a higher-priced commodity – a “delicacy,” perhaps – except that most bees don’t produce honey. But honey-making is not the benchmark of importance by which we should select which bees to care about or protect. If we care about plants – or if we just care about our food – we should care about wild bees. “Managed honeybee colonies supplement the work of natural wild pollinators, not the other way around,” notes Gwen Pearson, an entomologist with Purdue University.

Ecosystem health is a lot like the game JENGA®, with each block representing a single species. Together, the biodiversity of blocks makes an interconnected tower unit that is strong and resilient. Blocks that don’t directly touch may not, if removed, impact blocks further up the tower but their loss does compromise the stability of the whole, bringing the entire unit closer to collapse. Bee decline is universal and ubiquitous across all bee species, even the honeybee. Climate change, habitat degradation, pests and pathogens, poor nutrition, and pesticides are among the main threats to all bees. The good news is there’s actually a lot we can each do to support these pollinators, but first, let’s learn more about them.

In addition to social bees like honeybees and bumblebees (Apidae), there are leaf-cutting bees (Megachile), sweat bees (Halictidae), bees that make a water-resistant plaster to coat their nests (Colletidae), short-tongued bees (Andrenidae), small, dark bees (Melittidae), and fast-flying bees (Stenotritidae). The last two bee families are most prevalent in Africa and Australia respectively, but the other five are more widely distributed.

Spring wildflowers at Pepperwood. Photo courtesy of Ian Nelson.

We think of bees as unparticular about their flower choices, but in actuality the majority of bees are specialists. This means they have coevolved with specific plant genera or family groups. Micralictoides ruficaudus, mentioned earlier, is a sweat bee in the Halictidae family found in the foothills and mountains of California west of the Sierra Nevada range that specializes exclusively in the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). And speaking of the California poppy, not all flowers produce nectar, instead rewarding bees only with pollen. Some flower species require sonication or “buzz pollination” to release their pollen. It’s like the “open sesame” of access codes, and not all bees are able to do it. Honeybees, for instance, cannot sonicate. All plants in the primrose family (Primula), including those lovely early spring shooting stars, require buzz pollination. Food crops in the nightshade family like tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes, as well as many members of the heather family (Ericaceae) like cranberries and blueberries also fall into this group.

One could hypothesize that the reason bees are so “busy” is because their lives are rather fleeting. For most, it’s about one year. They spend three to six weeks of their lifetime as the mature flying insect we’re used to seeing, and the rest in a nest cell made for them by their mother or sisters. In the cell, they go through several developmental changes: egg, larva, pupa, and then finally winged adult.

In North America 90% of bees are solitary. The females nest in tiny places: abandoned beetle dens, tree cavities, holes in rocks, inside plant stalks, snail shells, you name it. There are a few bee species that construct their nests out of resin, mud, pebbles, sticks, live plant material – whatever’s handy. 70% of native bees nest underground. The mother bee builds rooms in her residence, called brood cells, which will house her young and their food supply. She’ll deposit single eggs into each room and with each egg she’ll leave a pollen ball (usually a mix of nectar and pollen) to bring them to their next stage of life. She will not meet her adult children; she will die at the end of this process having given the next generation everything she can to help it survive.

If you’ve gotten this far in this article, you’ve already completed the first step toward saving the bees: learning about them. This article is by no means exhaustive, and you can really get lost in all there is to know about bees, but this is a good primer. You can also support bees in your own garden. Creating a [local] pollinator-friendly garden can be as involved as you want it to be. UC Berkeley’s Bee Lab offers numerous resources for this type of gardening, but if you’d prefer to have someone else do it for you check out the California Native Plant Society’s GardenPlanner.Calscape.org, where they’ll plan your garden in four easy (multiple choice!) steps. This is an important action you can take because it creates what are known in conservation as “stepping stones,” which connect habitats so that pollinators can start to use the urban landscape in ways they previously couldn’t.

2024 SRJC Barnhart Interns: Bailey Glashan and Natalie Kozlowski.

Another way you can support pollinators is by supporting pollinator research and wild open spaces. Dr. Jennifer Palladini, a biology and botany professor at the Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) is currently conducting pollinator research at Pepperwood with the help of two interns through the Stephen J. Barnhart Herbarium Internship. “This project will produce valuable information with the potential to transform urban landscapes into high-quality native bee habitats,” says Dr. Palladini in a nod to the project’s potential far-reaching impacts as the results could fuel bee gardening throughout the city.

Furthermore, the project puts that change-making power into the hands of the next generation of conservationists. The two students selected to participate in this project, Bailey Glashan and Natalie Kozlowski, will not only participate in the collection of meaningful research that aims to minimize biodiversity loss but could also contribute to a habitat enrichment plan for the SRJC campus that can be implemented to transform it into a stable habitat island or corridor.

“Everything in nature is connected in ways we can’t always predict,” says Dr. Palladini, “disruption of the native ecology can trigger an unraveling in these ecosystems as diversity erodes over time. But if you care about beautiful wildflower displays or birds singing in the morning, then you need to care about all of it.” We’ll add to that list food availability as well, for those who feel they could live without birds and wildflowers. Dr. Palladini observes that shrinking insect diversity could be a canary in our coal mine, “when you have major groups of insects in decline, it could signal something about the health of those ecosystems that could ultimately affect human health as well.” While large-scale conservation efforts can seem out of reach to many of us, in the case of pollinators there’s absolutely something we can each do to make a difference. Let’s all start by paying a little more attention to the needs of local pollinators.

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