Bruce Bratton

Earth Management Without Data

“I don’t need to know anything more. I know all I need to know.” This is how most of the key people around us approach Earth Management. Is that frightening?

Santa Cruz County has a lot of conservation lands, and those lands are critical for our prosperity. 20% of Santa Cruz County is conservation land. We rely on those lands to provide us water, clean air, and geologically stable slopes. Conservation lands also support recreation, giving County residents reprieve and healing. Open space supports life that is intrinsically valuable and will sustain an elevated quality of life for people on this planet for generations to come. Natural area parks attract tourists, fueling an annual $1 billion income for businesses and supporting 14% of local jobs.

Does Park Management Matter?

It matters how conservation lands are managed. If natural areas recreation is mismanaged, studies have shown that wildlife will disappear, degrading parks visitor experience and the quality of life for county residents. In the long term, collectively these declines endanger the future of humans. Poorly managed recreation also makes for less safe and less pleasant parks user experiences. Mismanaged conservation lands result in eroding trails, increasing safety risk for visitors, reducing the water holding capacity of the land, and degrading habitats including filling wetlands and waterways with sediment. When conservation lands managers mismanage fuels, many are endangered by increased fire risk. If they don’t correctly manage timber operations, livestock, or farming on conservation lands, there could be increased fire risk, more spread of pathogens and weeds, erosion, and degradation of plant and animal life. Problems originating on conservation lands are a burden to surrounding landowners who are threatened by fire, weeds, reduced water quality, trespass, and poorly managed wildlife. Conservation lands were often targeted for acquisition to conserve rare species, but if those species aren’t well managed, they will increasingly deserve State or Federal endangered species status; this increases the regulatory burden of private property owners whose land has habitat for those species.

So Little Data…

Very few people make the decisions about how to manage the County’s conservation lands…these folks don’t have the necessary data to inform their decisions…and one wonders whether they want more data. There are fewer than 30 people in decision making roles for all of Santa Cruz County’s conservation lands. None to very few of those people have formal training in conservation lands management. When the folks planning the North Coast section of the Rail Trail were gathering data for recreational use of North Coast parks, they discovered that there were no reliable data for the adjoining 45,000 acres of conservation lands. They couldn’t find data about how many people were using parks where or when. They found no data on the repair status of the infrastructure (parking lots, trails, restrooms, etc) supporting those parks. Of the dozens of rare and endangered species on that landscape, only a handful have been regularly surveyed so we have no idea of the health of most species’ populations. There are no data on what visitors hope to experience versus what they actually encounter. This leads me to ask…do conservation lands managers want more data…how would we know?

The Elusive Need for Data

The first place one would expect to find conservation lands managers’ expressed data needs is on the web pages of their agencies. For example, California State Parks maintains a statewide ‘natural resource management’ webpage. On that page, the agency curiously notes: “California State Parks…supports scientific studies by universities and other researchers who use state parklands as sites for conducting studies designed to help us understand the ecological health of a park.” Note that this verbiage avoids stating that such research could help inform management. Nowhere on the webpage can you find out how Parks supports science. I have not been able to find a publicly available list of prioritized data needs nor science plans that would help to guide data collection prioritization for any conservation lands managers in the County. The Bureau of Land Management, managers of a sizeable conservation property, Cotoni Coast Dairies, apparently does not intend to complete a science plan, which is mandated for all such National Monument designated lands. With a region rife with research institutions, why would conservation lands managers not outwardly seek assistance with data collection and analysis?

The Few, The Proud

I am reflecting on the many conversations I’ve had with conservation lands managers about their priorities, or lack thereof, for data and analysis to inform their management. Many lament the need for more financial resources to support research within their agency; many have also shown suspicion about research that they do not tightly control. In the most recent conversations, two conservation lands managers told me that they had all the information they needed to manage thousands of acres of Santa Cruz County land. Their swagger suggested that they were experts and that they would notice if there was something awry with their management; if they needed to make any changes, they would know what to do. A few years ago, when another manager claimed something similar in a group with which I was a part, a wise colleague responded that humans have thought they knew the right thing to do for thousands of years only to be eventually proven wrong as science progressed. This know-it-all attitude is reflected in reports and programs such as this publication and another one from a central support organization for State Parks, where it is supposed that it is merely necessary to disseminate ‘best practices’ or to train parks employees to implement ‘tested approaches for management.’

Twisted Logic

Try to make sense of the following logical framework, which local Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conservation lands management leaders have publicly stated. Although BLM has sufficient information to inform their management…the questions they might have for researchers…whatever they might be (not stated/published)…are not expected to overlap with the interests of researchers. But, even if they could find some overlapping interest, researchers would likely not produce information that would be salient for BLM’s management.

A Beacon of Hope

As a stand-out exception to these trends, the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network, a consortium of lands managers working throughout the region, recently completed a data-driven climate adaptation project. But it is not clear if any particular land management agency has officially adopted the project’s findings, which largely either contradict current management or suggest the need for much more study/work before alternate management actions might be considered. So, perhaps there is some hope…

Support What’s Right

Meanwhile, how can we help advocate for better progress with scientific approaches to stewarding the precious conservation lands of Santa Cruz County? Your most likely leverage point is through advocacy organizations. Don’t support an organization that doesn’t align with your values. For instance, Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks has a mission that purportedly supports ‘thriving’ parks and ‘conservation’ – support them only if you find that science-based land conservation is a priority. It would be great if other groups were able to help State Parks with their stewardship issues. The California Native Plant Society has a great reputation as having a science-based approach to assisting with conservation lands management through advocacy and partnership. Occasionally, Audubon California will help with such issues. The Nature Conservancy has long been a leader helping other conservation lands managers to be more science-based and data driven with their stewardship work.

As always, please vote for the environment. Ask candidates about how they will help conservation lands managers be more scientific with their approaches to stewardship. These issues touch on elections at every level: city, county, state and federal candidates should all have clear environmental platforms for conservation lands assistance. Hundreds of thousands of acres of Santa Cruz County depend on smart practitioners of Earth Management! Let’s help move that forward.

Apples

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about apples and want to share a bit about what I know about this wonderful fruit.

A Rose by Any Other Name

Apples are in the same plant family as roses. When you are eating an apple, you are kind of eating a rose hip, only sweeter. Check out an apple flower and you’ll see a wild rose – five petals and a big bunch of stamens. An apple orchard in flower gives off a dusty rose smell. We’re lucky apples don’t have thorns. Other fruits are in the rose family, too: cherries, apricots, plums…

Apple Blossoms with Honeybee

Apple Lore

Wild apples are found in their genetic birthplace in southern Kazakhstan in the Tian Shan mountains. Apples were domesticated at least 1500 years ago from the wild species Malus sieversii. Bears and people spread that wild thing around far and wide and then folks started messing with it to make better fruit. The result was a cultivated variety with different species names, such as Malus pumila, Malus sylvestris, Malus communis or Malus domestica. If you don’t have a favorite variety of apple, there are plenty to try. Worldwide, there are 7500 varieties grown. Locally, you can try more than 70 varieties at the annual apple tasting at Wilder Ranch. This year’s tasting is on October 8th and hosted by the Monterey Bay Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers.

Gala Apples – a favorite!

Our Region and Apples

Our region is famous for its apple cultivation. Martinelli’s Gold Medal apple cider has its history in Watsonville. There are still around 2,000 acres of apple trees in the Monterey Bay area and almost all of those apples go to Martinelli juice, which is made primarily of the apple variety Newtown Pippin with some Mutsu (aka Crispin) mixed in. With the many juice taste tests I’ve participated in, Newtown Pippin wins easily, but Mutsu is a close second.  Martinelli is now offering organic apple juice, reminding me of one of the reasons organic agriculture got its boost.

Organic Foods Movement and Apples

One of the earliest boosts for the organic foods movement was due to apples. The Natural Resources Defense Council published a peer reviewed scientific study demonstrating the carcinogenic danger of Alar, a synthetic spray used on apples and found on apples in the store. The news show 60 Minutes caried this story in 1989 and the public quickly stopped buying apples. Lawsuits followed and Congress passed legislation, and then the organic food movement got a big boost.

Growing Apples

It’s not easy to grow any apple for profit but growing organic apples is even more difficult. The labor alone is a wonder. I figure that an organic apple is handled 6 times before you pick one up at the market.

  1. The first touch: fruit thinning

Touch one: fruit thinning. If the farmer is really good, they only touch the fruit a single time when thinning fruit. There can be up to 6 flowers per cluster, and it is best to thin that cluster to one fruit or there are all sorts of problems. Lack of thinning makes for smaller fruit, not a problem if you want juice but a big problem for sales. If you don’t thin enough, there’s too much weight for the apple branches and branches break. Also, without sufficient thinning the tree makes more seeds using more nutrients that then don’t get invested in the next season’s buds. So, you get a tree that bears every other year: aka alternate bearing.

  • Touch two: harvest

Someone has to harvest the fruit from the tree. These apples go into harvest bags that have to get hauled to the sorting table.

  • Touch three: the sort

Apples need to get carefully sorted. You make sure that any insect damaged fruit doesn’t go to the store and that the right sizes are in the right boxes.

  • Touch four: the boxes go into the truck for delivery
  • Touch five: the boxes go off of the truck at delivery
  • Touch six: the apples go on display

Apple Soil

Many of us believe that the key to success in apple growing is good soil stewardship. Apple trees grow best in close association with soil fungi also known as mycorrhizae. The tastiest fungal associate of apple trees is the famous morel mushroom, but I don’t know anyone who has successfully and purposefully grown morels and apples together…it’s a dream. Mostly, the fungi that collaborate with apples don’t make tasty mushrooms but they can help the apple trees absorb nutrients and water. There is also evidence that apple trees are healthier if they are aided by their fungal associates. I’ve learned lots about apple growing from the author Michael Phillips. He swore that placing piles of hardwood chips made from the fine branches of trees was key to a healthy orchard as fungi love that kind of wood and, in turn, feed the trees.

Well-thinned Mutsu Apples: good for cider or sale of large apples

Growing Apples and our Climate

The native habitat of apples is not at all like California, so we have to think carefully about how we manage apples in our climate. One major issue is that California has a hot, dry summer. Kazakhstan’s mountains have moist summers, so either we irrigate apples or plant trees where their roots reach moisture deep in the soil throughout the summer. Full sized apple trees have roots that reach 20’ down; dwarfing rootstock is smaller. Full sized apple tree also try to reach their natural 40 feet height, so despite the deep roots the height of the tree can be a real problem. Shorter trees and dwarfing rootstock means more thirsty trees.

The other problems with growing apples in our region have to do with heat. Many apple varieties need enough ‘chill hours’ to be healthy; a chill hour is one hour less than 45 degrees while the tree is dormant. We don’t get a lot of those right around here (especially with warming winters) and areas south of us on the coast are nearly impossible to grow many types of apples because of that. The other temperature issue is hot roots. Apples don’t like warm roots- too warm and the trees aren’t as healthy. The answer is to keep the understory watered and mulched.

Apple Friends

If you grow an apple tree, you are bound to attract critters. There are always birds wanting to eat the fruit: I get acorn woodpeckers, California scrub jays and Steller’s jays pecking away at fruit. Fallen fruit feed gophers and mice. Gray fox harvest fallen fruit or fruit right from the trees. If you are in town, you might also get opossum, rats, and raccoons doing the same. One of my favorite butterflies raises its young on apple leaves: the California sister. But, there are many other species of butterflies and moths that do the same. Finally, you need to watch an apple tree in blossom to appreciate the number of pollinators that celebrate apple blooming season.

Your Apple Tree

I hope you can appreciate the apple tree a little bit more and maybe you’ll be inspired to help care for one. If you don’t want to grow one yourself, perhaps you can help care for one through many of the community orchard projects happening all over town. At the very least, when you see that apple at the market, now you may appreciate the life that it had before it made it to the sales display table. Each fruit has its own story, but apples have a special place in our local history.

-this post originally published by Bruce Bratton on his extraordinarily useful BrattonOnline.com weekly blog

Summer Flies

Conservationist Mike Splain coined an appropriate measure of the summertime population level of face flies in Big Sur: ‘apocalyptic.’ Many readers who spend any time outside in the summer away from the immediate coast will know the insects of which I speak. They are small surprisingly fast flies that specialize in buzzing into facial orifices. My friend Catherine suggests we call them ‘eye ear nose and throat experts,’ a nod to ENT medical specialists. What they are officially called, in Latin, remains a mystery to me. No one seems to know. When asking friends recently what they call them, I got “dog pecker flies” and a suggestion that they are officially called “eye gnats.”

Face Fly Season

These flies only recently emerged in numbers in the hills above Santa Cruz. The heat seems to explain their population explosions. This past weekend, I was surprised to be bothered by them at sea level in Big Sur. I avoid all inland Big Sur areas after late Spring until well after the first rains when they disappear. Cool rains are their antidote. Once they become numerous, it is impossible to have an outdoor conversation without what we called back east the ‘New Jersey wave’ – an attempt to shoo the flies away with a constant back and forth motion of the hand, especially near your ears. They seem to love jumping into your ear holes.

Secret Bites

This fly bites. You can’t feel their small bodies land, except in your ears, nose, or eyes…but they will land and bite you anywhere that’s exposed. They don’t bite quickly and easily scare away before they bite. If they do get you, they leave a small welt that, for me, is itchy and persistent. If you watch wildlife – deer and rabbits – you’ll see they are suffering greatly from these flies. Deer ears wag back and forth, bunnies blink a bunch.

Mosquitoes

During the summer, in a fair trade for the profusion of obnoxious face flies, we don’t have to be attacked by mosquitoes, which are nearly absent in our Mediterranean climate. You have to be near water in the summertime to have mosquitoes around these parts. Estuaries, like the Elkhorn Slough, have summertime mosquitoes. If you are lucky enough to have a pond to swim in, you will also have mosquitoes. We are most familiar with mosquitoes that have larvae in the water, but we’ve got another type. Once the rain re-wets the soil, a swarm of certain types of mosquitoes emerge which are able to have a life cycle in moist soil.

Horseflies

My second least favorite biting insect (after face flies) is the horse fly, aka deer fly aka doctor fly. At least I know what these are officially called. Not that knowledge is power. We seem powerless against this troupe of pests. In the family Tabanidae, naturalists call them ‘tabanids.’ Country folk from the south through Central and South America call them doctor flies because they are surgeons, painlessly piercing a hole in your skin through which to mop up blood. They hurt when they leave you because their two parted cutting blade proboscis is barbed and those barbs hurt like the Dickens when they pull out…but then it is too late to get even as they fly quickly away.

I once asked someone in Costa Rica if the doctor flies were bad in the forest and he said ‘in places.’ Somehow, both doctor flies and face flies are clustered in distribution: bad in certain places and not so bad in others. When hiking, it seems you walk into packs of horse flies that, like packs of feral dogs, take advantage of your distraction in swatting one so that another can stab you for her meal. Yes, I said ‘her’ because, like mosquitoes, females need protein in blood to make eggs.

Conversely, Fly Friends

Most folks know what a dragonfly looks like but underappreciate the similarly useful predator called the robberfly. Draggonflies grow up in the water; their larval stage fiercely devours other aquatic life, including small fish, mosquitoes, etc. After they emerge in their winged form…the beautiful things we are more likely to recognize… adolescents move far away from water so we see them many places. Dragonflies zip about catching other insects on the wing, controlling things like face flies, mosquitoes, and horseflies.

Unlike dragonflies, Robberflies are arid environment specialists; but, similar to dragonflies, they are aerial predators controlling many of the insects that we would rather do without. As larvae in terrestrial habitats, robberflies prey on all sorts of other life they encounter. As adults, robberflies eat wasps, bees, dragonflies, each other, mosquitoes, and lots of other flying critters. Robberflies are aerial acrobats with relatively long bodies and wings folded over their tops. I find them most recognizable because of their long legs which they use to grab onto prey.

What Good are Flies?

Clouds of face flies… hovering wining mosquitoes… fleet attacks of horseflies…darting dragonflies and the assassin-grabbings of robberflies…just a few examples of the diverse strategies of our invertebrate relatives at making life work.

Why should we like flies? Think of flies as the aerial wildlife that they are. Right there in front of you, all around Santa Cruz, you can observe an aerial ecosystem with prey and predator interactions. Those insects emerge from aquatic or terrestrial systems and can be used as indicators of ecosystem health.  Bugs feed bats, frogs, and birds, critters that most people want in their lives. Certainly, farmers want those bug eating animals doing their crops a favor.

Bug Friends

There are many ways to be bug friendly: don’t go ballistic over the face flies! If I find out what the face flies are…and how folks approach their control…I’ll let you know. Most folks don’t much care about mosquito control as they are close to nonexistent. No one I know has ever figured out how to control horse flies and they aren’t so numerous as to warrant much effort. With time, we may learn how to nurture robber fly populations.

We also want to support organic farming practices that avoid synthetic pesticides which continue to impact the insect world far from farms. As opposed to Europe, the United States still allows neonics, aka neonicotinoid, a type of pesticide that is used in most corn and soybean crops and which has been shown to negatively affect honeybees, so probably also impacts other non-target insects around those vast croplands.

As we are thinking about how we can use fewer pesticides around our homes we can also avoid electronic bug zappers. Seemingly intelligent people are still powering up the UV lights that attract many insects to an electrical killing screen, a bug zapper. The UV light doesn’t attract biting insects but rather kills a host of other insects giving the owners a sick sense of success as the machine makes the zapping noise over and over as more and more insects are fried on the electric screen.

More Bugs!

Think about what you can do to attract more, not fewer, insects around your home: nurture native plants, especially wildflowers that blossom in all seasons. Coyotebrush, an easy to grow shrub, is blossoming and full of insect pollinators right now, in the dry depths of summer. Diverse native plants including ones that blossom at all times of the year will contribute to native insect diversity. If you are a generous donor type, give funds to the Xerxes Society, an incredibly successful and efficient nonprofit group devoted to conservation of invertebrates.

-this post originall published in Bruce Bratton’s amazing weekly blog BrattonOnline.com

Grazing Goats for Fire Safety

One of the more common questions I’m getting these days is: what do you think about all this goat grazing for fuels reduction? I suspect the questions are coming to me because folks want to hear about my ecological perspective about goat grazing effects. There are other concerns, and I try to wrap those into this essay.

Goat Grazing Benefits

Grazing goats can produce many benefits from food and fiber production to wildfire fuels reduction, invasive species control, ecological restoration, and endangered species recovery. Goat meat is popular in many different people’s cuisines, and raising goats locally reduces transportation costs and resulting greenhouse gas emissions. Many have criticized the beef industry for greenhouse gas emissions impacts, this might be a better solution for those who desire meat as part of their diet. Goat hair (angora, cashmere, etc) is a useful fiber in place of sheep’s wool, and goat skins are used to create and repair drums and banjos. Is anyone doing these kinds of things with the herds of goats used for fuels reduction?

Goat herds are mainly being used for reducing the fuel loads that could make wildfires more catastrophic. Goats are useful in this way as they readily eat brush as well as grass. Sheep, cows and horses mainly eat grass, though they’ll nibble at shrubs, too.  Goats like to eat shrubs so much that they will get on their hind legs and pull at branches as far up as they can reach. They’ll even climb trees!

Properly managed goats can help to reduce the cover and reproduction of invasive plants, including shrubby species. Goats can reduce thistle patches, mow down infestations of invasive grasses, and tear up French broom. These things qualify as ecological restoration, but goats can do more than just this…

By properly managing goats, we can help to restore evolutionary grazing disturbance regimes on which ecosystems and endangered species depend. By reducing the growth of grasses, or the thatch that grasses make, goat grazing can facilitate the germination and survival of wildflowers, which also helps restore pollinators. By grazing brush, goats can keep coastal prairies more open, conserving habitat for grassland dependent birds, such as black shouldered kite, burrowing owl, and grasshopper sparrow. When livestock reduces thatch in grasslands, grasses are less competitive and wildflowers flourish; so, endangered butterflies like Bay checkerspot which depends on wildflowers can thrive.

Cautions about Goat Grazing

Note that I’ve said ‘properly managed’ a lot. Saying ‘goat grazing is good’ is like saying ‘weather is good’ – both statements are nonsensical without details. The four variables to control with livestock grazing are seasonality, intensity, duration, and frequency. Grazing in the winter growing season can help reduce the growth of cool-wet-season grasses and so favor wildflowers (and thistles!). Putting many, many goats in an area is more intense than just a few. Putting many, many goats in an area for a long period of time is more impactful than a short period of time. Returning a herd of goats to an area more- versus less-frequently makes a difference. I just witnessed a recently goat-grazed public park area near San Rafael where there was almost no grass left and the oak and eucalyptus trees had been moderately damaged by goats gnawing through bark. Grazing goats in the early summer certainly made sense to reduce the potential for soil compaction and erosion on the steep slopes I was visiting. But, on the ungrazed adjoining areas, native tarplants were in blossom – I’m not sure if those will come back in the goat grazed area so that pollinators will have something to visit. Small oak trees that had goat munched bark scars from the previous year were dying or dead. I questioned not only the need to graze the ground so hard as to negatively affect native trees, but I also questioned the health and welfare of the animals: was it necessary to make those animals very, very hungry to eat the grass down to near dirt and then start gnawing on tree bark?

Other cautions about goat grazing I wonder about: flies, manure, and weeds. Do communities near goat grazing areas get more flies, even biting flies? Does the manure wash off the grazed barrens and into streams and cause pollution? Are the goats transporting weed seeds onto the property from an area they grazed right before they were temporarily transported for fire control? All good cautions to ask about when reviewing the costs vs. the benefits of goat grazing.

The last caution I have is about training mountain lions to eat goats. I’ve heard too many folks raising goats blame the mountain lions for the loss of their animals when the fault almost certainly lies with careless livestock managers. Proper protection includes guardian dogs, electric fencing, and lion-proof night pens. When folks don’t properly protect goats, mountain lions figure out a way to eat them…and then become accustomed to those easy meals. At that point, the human has effectively trained the mountain lion to eat livestock and then there’s a problem.

Challenges Ahead

It seems that goat grazing is an expanding enterprise for fuels reduction, so how do we make it work better? Part of the solution is already on the table: all livestock grazing programs must be approved by a state-licensed Certified Rangeland Manager. This is a parallel program to the Registered Professional Forester who signs off on any timber production in California. A Certified Rangeland Manager has the skills to outline a plan to maximize the benefits and minimize the problems of a goat grazing operation.

Even with a good plan, there are significant challenges ahead for goat-led habitat and fuels management. For instance, given the oversight needed for each herd, how do we afford the shepherds and still affordably manage goats? Goats are escape artists, so shepherds are necessary to keep them contained and well supervised, if only to assure that areas don’t get overgrazed and the goats stay healthy and safe. We need to find the right way for shepherds to have a good standard of living and decent working hours in an economy that already has a difficult time paying a living wage. If we can find and keep the labor, how do we train enough people to pay enough attention to the nuances of habitat management so that we restore habitats instead of destroy them while we seek a more fire-safe landscape?

In Conclusion

Next time you see goats arrive to do some work, I’m hoping you ask some of the questions I posed above. Only by having respectful dialogues about these issues can we hope to find the ‘right’ place for goat powered fuels reduction and habitat restoration. Such conversations can elevate the intelligence of all parties as we seek a better way to live on this super biologically diverse, fire prone landscape.

-this content originally published at Bruce Bratton’s wonderful weekly blog: BrattonOnline.com sign up now and save on the already low, low price of nothing (donations welcomed).

Caring about Public Land Management

What’s going on with public land management around you, and what are you doing about it?

Most citizens of the U.S.A. state that they want healthy wildlife populations and clean water for their communities and for future generations to enjoy. And yet, repeated surveys of Santa Cruz County residents suggest declining efforts to learn about wildlife so that individuals could take action to protect assure wildlife conservation. We can see this decline also reflected in our activism and politics. When was the last time you heard about an environmental activist group taking a stand to protect local wildlife? Which politician can you name that had environmental conservation as a major portion of their platforms? Have you looked at the agendas or minutes from Santa Cruz County’s Commission on the Environment or Fish and Game Commission – both advisory bodies to County Supervisors? I challenge you to find any evidence of solicited or unsolicited advice to the Supervisors. In short, our County, at the top of the nation’s biodiverse counties, is effectively asleep while their precious natural heritage is being rapidly eroded by neglect. I frequently hear how much Santa Cruzans appreciate the wildlife, the open space, and the natural beauty of this area. If we take these things for granted and do not make efforts to be involved with conservation, I think we know what will happen to these values: they will decline, whither, and disappear altogether with time. It is time to make a shift, and the shift is best focused on our public lands management.

One of the most important things we can do as citizens of this county is to be involved with the management of the public lands around us. There are many ways to be involved in wildlife conservation on public lands throughout the region: volunteering for stewardship, rallying political support for increased conservation on public lands, and supporting environmental conservation organizations. There are three main threats facing nature conservation public lands: changed disturbance regimes, invasive species, and poor management of visitor use. I discuss each briefly in the following and present ways that you might be involved in solution for improved public lands management.

With climate change and increased development encroachment on natural areas, natural disturbance regimes, such as fire and grazing, are rapidly changing presenting a high degree of danger to nature conservation. With climate change, fires are expected to be more frequent and more severe; this is exacerbated by increased human interactions at the Wildland Urban Interface where accidental fires more frequently occur. Likewise, we have removed tule elk and pronghorn and it is becoming increasingly difficult for natural areas managers to use livestock to mimic natural grazing regimes. With both fire and grazing, public lands managers need more public funding to increase their ability to manage natural systems. There needs to be more public outcry and support for both funding and expertise within those agencies to improve lands management. Those kinds of support are also important for invasive species management. A different kind of support is needed for better management of natural areas in the face of poor visitor use management.

Badly managed visitor use in natural areas is a major cause of concern globally for nature conservation, and locally this seems to be nearly entirely ignored. The most glaring evidence that this is a problem is the nearly ubiquitous and unquestioned philosophy that increased access to natural areas is an important goal for nature conservation. Look carefully around our local parks agencies and you’ll also notice that there are no personnel trained at managing the conflict between nature conservation and visitor use, the field of study necessary to assure nature conservation in parks. The most recent planning effort for visitor use in a public park was with the BLM’s Cotoni Coast Dairies property, a real disaster in public process with recreational infrastructure development proceeding apace despite an active and unsettled legal appeal by a very small of citizens who have seen too little community support. Of the many larger, environmental groups in the area, only the Sempervirens Fund has offered publicly stated concern”Important details remain to be determined and we look forward to working with BLM to resolve them.” For the grave impacts to nature from visitor use in natural areas, there seems to me to be a need for a fundamental shift in both public perception and in the public lands management agencies to better recognize and address this issue. The following section outlines some actions you can take to help this process forward.

There are many ways, big and small, for you to be more involved with the paradigm shift needed to better address the serious issues surrounding visitor use management in natural areas. First and foremost, many more of us should become educated about the science documenting the concerns and how those concerns are addressed through social and environmental carrying capacity analysis and adaptive management. Social carrying capacity analyses define the limits of acceptable change from visitor use conflicts: conflicts between different types of uses (for instance, mountain bikers vs. passive recreational use of families with children) or conflicts due to overcrowding. Ecological carrying capacity analyses define the limits of acceptable change for soils, biota, or other natural phenomenon (for instance, amounts of trail erosion, wildlife such as cougars that are easily disrupted by visitors).

Another thing we can do to help the situation of poor visitor use management in our parks is to advocate for improvement. We should tune our senses to notice negative impacts of visitor use and then aim our activism towards change: make formal reports of issues to natural area managers, follow up on those reports, and also message higher level administration, commissions overseeing those agencies, and politicians who are invested in agency oversight. Persistence will help. Let’s also vote for politicians who promise to help. And, let’s support environmental groups who promise to work on these issues. Finally, many more people who care about these issues need to be involved with public lands management planning. Currently, mainly exploitive and well-funded non-passive recreational users are organized and vocal during these processes (i.e., Outdoor Industry Association funded groups like mountain biking advocates). Meanwhile, traditional conservation groups like the Sierra Club and Audubon Society have shied away from such issues due to either controversy or co-option. We need a new group or need to sway old groups to take these issues on.

-this article originally appeared at Bruce Bratton’s weekly BrattonOnline.com If you haven’t subscribed, I recommed it: “The last great news sources of Santa Cruz.”

Toyon

There’s an important plant showing off right now. Cast your eyes across our hillsides or hike deep in the ravines, and you may catch a glimpse of large multi-trunked treelike shrubs festooned with bright white blossoms. In December, these plants will be weighted with bright red berries, just in time for the holidays. Branches with berries were so popular as wild gleaned holiday décor that Californians had to pass laws to prohibit harvesting in the early 1900’s. This big shrub or at times small tree is called “toyon,” Hollywood, or Christmas berry.

Little rose-family flowers of toyon

Madrone-like Different Apple

The plant’s genus name “Heteromeles” means ‘different apple’ (“hetero” translates as ‘different’ and “meles” references the apple genus ‘Malus’), which makes sense because this super shrub is related to apples, which are also in the rose family. You can see why it is a rose relative if you examine the small flowers and find that they are five-petaled, like wild roses. I captured a photo of a honeybee visiting Toyon flowers (note the attractive red leaves in the background). Like roses (and apples!) the flowers have an alluring scent…some say like Hawthorn – but, does anyone know how to describe hawthorn smell?? Oh, so much to learn…in Nature, there’s always more to learn.

More plant name etymology…as we already covered the secrets behind the genus name. Botanists often play most playfully with “plant nomenclature.” As a profession, they might be the punniest. This shrub-tree’s species name is “arbutifolia” referring to the shape of the leaves, which are like leaves in the genus Arbutus, which includes our native madrones. I recognize that the overall leaf shape fits and that the leaves are extremely waxy like madrone leaves. But, Toyon leaves are a darker green and have little teeth on their margins, unlike madrones. Nevertheless, if you cut branches of this plant for the holidays, you’ll get both a dark green ‘holly-like’ leaf color as well as the bright red distinctly holly-like berries- a fine combination.

Do We Eat Them?

Yes, we do eat them. The original people of this land made delicious food out of Toyon berries. The name Toyon is a Spanish-era mispronunciation of the native peoples’ name “totcon.” There is a problem, though…when ripe, the seeds are full of cyanide, so one must process the berries to get rid of that poison. I don’t know anyone who has done that work, and I leave the berries for the birds.

What Else Do We Do with Toyon?

Toyon wood is epically useful but little known these days. Know anyone with a toyon wood anything? Native peoples used the wood for poles, arrows, bows, pegs, pestles, frames for furniture, bowls, etc.

Nowadays we use the plant in restoration and habitat management. The birds, pollinators, and mammals like it a lot- a prime candidate for restoration in many ecosystems.

Wildlife Food

Wildlife worship at the Toyon many times a year. Now, when the shrubtrees are in bloom, they vibrate with pollinator noises in all octaves. Being one of the only early summer abundant sources of pollen and nectar, Toyon is the go-to nectar bar for a wide variety of buzzing floral resource collectors. The distinct drone of European honeybees emanates from the flowering canopy, joined by the high whine of numerous flies and the deeper tones of larger native bees. And then there are fruit…

Cedar Waxwing on toyon (copyright by Creative Commons and photo by Flickr user Becky Matsubara).

The fruit take a long time to mature, a long wait until berries are ripe and delicious, but as with the good fortune of early summer flowers, the fruit arrives at a time when few other such foods are available. One of my favorite wintertime visitors, flocks of noisy cedar waxwings descend on a toyon and feast joyously on the berries. The amazing photo above is copyright by Creative Commons and is by Flickr user Becky Matsubara. Robins, too, regular fruit eaters, gulp them down. I’m not sure how coyotes reach the Toyon fruit around here, often too high to reach. If there were bears still around, they would feast on Toyon berries, probably tearing off limbs that bore berries too high for their reach. All of these critters disperse Toyon seeds with their poop. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a waxwing-dispersed toyon sprouting up in your home’s vicinity…or, if an open space near you doesn’t sport crowns of Hollywood stars…there’s always a chance to plant them!

A mature toyon near Davenport, California

Landscaping with Toyon

Toyon is a great landscape and restoration plant when you want a large, resilient, and wildlife friendly shrub. The species isn’t the fastest growing, but it is quick enough! After 10 years, you can count on a 12’ tall, 10’ diameter plant with a full round crown chock full of flowers. What you can’t count on is a full canopy of leaves…or red berries…it seems that those only occur on the driest of sites – mine get mildewy leaves that fall off readily and the berries turn moldy black in many years. The flowers, though, consistently appear in larger and larger bee-covered masses. Count on multiple trunks with smooth grayish bark that are easily pruned up to be more fire safe. If there is a fire, you can count on Toyon to bound back with new sprouts so perhaps once established a shrub can live a very long time. Another bonus- although Toyon is ostensibly evergreen, it does shed its leaves a few at a time…and as those leaves get ready to shed they turn a bright and beautiful red.

I took this photo of a 10 year old toyon just today, high above Davenport- in bloom and very lush looking.

Your Task

Your homework, should you decide to take my advice, is to spot the Toyon. There really aren’t that many trees or near tree shrubs to learn in our area, and this one is a great one to add to your repertoire of local knowledge. Where will you go to find this species???            

-This post originally posted by Bruce Bratton in his weekly blog BrattonOnline.com

Botta Pocket Gophers

Pocket gophers are an important and very common mammal in many habitats in our area, so it seems appropriate to learn a little more about them. Most people know them as pests of ornamental plants or crops, but they play important roles far beyond that pestiferousness. And, just look at how cute they can be- photo by Flickr user Chuck Abbe:

What is a Pocket Gopher?

Why is this critter called a pocket gopher? No, it’s not because of some 1970’s fad of domesticating gophers and putting them inside pocket protector-lined pockets. BTW, this fad fantasy must include pocket protectors because gophers have sharp teeth that they habitually gnaw with to wear them down…without such nervous-seeming gnawing, their teeth would be 11” long by the end of the year. This fad could really take off one day because pocket gophers are not legally protected by the State!

Back to the subject at hand…the ‘pocket gopher’ name comes from odd pockets that these critters use as their cargo containers, hauling soil or food. Those pockets extent from the cheeks back to their shoulders. Inside those furry pouches, they haul food into their burrow, creating food storage piles in a deep portion of their burrow system. This food pantry also serves as their sleeping, baby raisin area, so food’s close at hand. That makes me think that maybe there’s a niche for food-storing bedroom furniture for humans!

Local Gophers

Our local species of pocket gopher is the most widespread in California, and so there’s lots of information around about its natural history. Our species, Botta Pocket Gopher, is almost everywhere in the state except the high Sierra Nevada. Like most pocket gophers, the males of this species are larger than the females. So, its likely that the Jury Room sign that was posted for years ‘Home of the Giant Gopher’ referenced a male. Not that you’d try, but you tell pocket gopher species apart from where they live and then the size of their rear feet, the shape of their ears and the relative size of the dark area around their ear.

Territorial Gopher

Pocket gophers are very territorial, protecting their extensive burrow system which represents the extent of their feeding ground. The size of their territory depends on how much food there is, but they range from the size of a tennis court or, sometimes, you can fit 10 gopher territories in the space of a tennis court. If you kill a gopher, its burrow system won’t be vacant for long…

Waves of Dispersing Gopher Young

During breeding season, gophers become less territorial, allowing visitors into their burrows, which seems sensible for reproduction. Where people aren’t watering plants, and the summers are so very dry, pocket gophers have a single breeding season in late winter. They bear 2-5 blind babies (aka ‘pinkies’). Gophers kick these offspring out of their burrows as soon as they are weaned (40 days after birth), and those young have to find a place to live. Those dispersing gopher children are why folks suggest leaving root protection cages out of the ground 6 inches. That wave of dispersing gophers will try to occupy whatever burrows they find…including the burrow complexes that have been abandoned by other gophers due to trapping or old age. People think that our gophers only live 3 years.

Gophers Drought Solutions

Gophers are soil engineers and are so good at their work that they are known to be an important solution to California’s water crisis.

Some have suggested that restoring mountain meadows in the Sierra Nevada could store as much water as two new giant reservoirs. Part of this would be done with reintroduction of a different rodent, the beaver, but another part is already under way by the pocket gopher. Pocket gophers are excellent hydrological engineers, assuring infiltration of snow melt and rain through the soil through their burrows, which include specific drainage architecture. Gophers can drown and need to breathe air, so their burrow systems must accommodate drainage for the rainy season.

Native Meadow Gardener Gopher

The better local natural historians around us will already know about the super-diverse and super-interesting mima mound meadows around Santa Cruz. These are caused by eons of soil movement by gophers, which means that they are literally “ecosystem architects.” Atop the mima mounds, there are poppies, lupines, purple needlegrass and other ‘dry’ loving species; between the mounds there are buttercups and rushes as well as streams and pools of water weeping from ancient gopher mounds during the winter. Dry and wet gopher-created ecosystems in close proximity makes for extraordinary species diversity.

Gopher Burrows: Habitat for Other Creatures

All of those gopher burrows are quite inviting to other creatures. In other places, scientists have described insect species that only live in gopher burrows. I see a species of brown fly come out of gopher burrows around here- there’s probably much more to be discovered. Pocket gophers don’t much like to invite things to enter their homes, so they plug their holes with a distinctive soil plug. However, I’ve seen newts poised for nocturnal forays at the mouths of gopher burrows. Others have seen rare California tiger salamanders using gopher runs. Those tunnels would of course be cooler and moister than the surrounding habitats in the summer. I commonly see the aptly named gopher snake winding its way from one gopher hole to the next, only the middle of its body visible. If gophers plug their holes, how do the snakes find their way in? Somehow they know…I saw a gopher snake recently quickly and energetically ‘dive’ into a gopher-strewn dirt pile and disappear quickly. Many are thankful for gopher predators because of the damage gophers can do to human-plants. Gopher snakes and alligator lizards are the most effective gopher control, because they can get down in the gopher burrows and eat the pinkies, controlling many gophers at one sitting.

What to do About Gophers

There are plenty of websites with information about how to, and many tools to, kill gophers, but is there another way to coexist with these creatures? I have spent a fair amount of money and time killing gophers or protecting plants from gophers using buried metal caging, and I have a few suggestions for gopher coexistence.

Lawns are pretty much passe at this point in California, so how about letting gophers make their homes in what would have been a lawn? The only drawback I’ve experienced is the mounds of dusty soil that they pile up, making a mess of what I want to be level ground without trip hazards. Use a gravel rake and smooth those mounds out and you’ve got a great seedbed for wildflowers to sprout from next spring. Yes, with all of that soil disturbance, gophers are doing a great job of preparing wildflower beds- poppies, lupines and other wild pea relatives, new yarrow seedlings, redmaids, owls’ clover, and lots more appreciates that fresh ground.

Another thing to do is choose plants that gophers don’t bother. Colt rootstock for cherry trees is highly resistant to gophers. Wild rushes (especially Juncus patens) stay green through the summer and are so tough that gophers can’t destroy them.

A final solution is to cultivate meadow voles, which are superior at running gophers out of their tunnels. Voles like lots of mulch- put mulch around and voles proliferate…and the gophers run away (or die at the homicidal teeth of the vole militia).

I’d like to see more discussion about human-gopher coexistence, so these important creatures can continue to do so much good across our region.

-This post originally presented as part of Bruce Bratton’s BrattonOnline.com weekly blog…check it out!

Birds from the Coffee Region

Many of us enjoy both delicious coffee and the fascinating birds that hail from coffee growing regions: how do these two seemingly disparate subjects relate to our daily lives?

Coffee Botany

Coffee shrubs are beautiful, lush shrubs, 6-15’ tall and wide with many stems and glossy oval leaves with long ‘drip tips’ – a common feature in rainforest plants that help shed water. I have a potted, indoor coffee plant and many of my friends have raised them, but they are notoriously finicky to care for and especially prone to indoor plant pests. That coffee plant is the thirstiest of my house plants, wilting quickly when drying out: at least it is good at communicating! That thirstiness makes sense as coffee is naturally an understory plant, originating in the lush damp shade of African tropical rainforests.

After 5 years, my coffee plant blossomed this spring, and I was reminded of it’s very sweet smelling (like jasmine!), small white tubular flowers. Now, I’m looking forward to the tasty fruit, which is confusingly called a ‘cherry’ and turns deep maroon-red when ripe and is soft-fleshy (slimy?) sweet (like hibiscus) and full of antioxidants. In the center of the red fruit, there will be a pair of seeds…called coffee ‘beans’ – another misnomer associated with this plant as the plant isn’t related to cherries or beans! Whenever I encounter a small red fleshy fruit, I’ve been trained to suspect the plant co-evolved with birds for seed dispersal. Even when coffee is grown far from its African origins, there are birds that devour the fruit, but cultivated coffee has a more important relationship with tropical birds.

Coffee Farms and Birds

Coffee is a lucrative tropical farming product and is cultivated on 27 million acres. Tropical regions are the most biologically diverse areas of the planet with many species still being discovered. Conversion of tropical rainforest to agriculture is occurring rapidly, threatening that biodiversity. Soybeans and palm oil are two crops that are expanding rapidly, but coffee is much more lucrative per acre. And coffee can be grown more in harmony with tropical biodiversity, but only if it is ‘shade grown.’

Shade Grown Coffee

As reviewed by independent, peer reviewed, published science, the only credible shade grown certification is from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, carrying the logo inserted here.

The standards for this certification include maintaining real shade provided by diverse overstory trees as well as organic practices (certified by another agency)…and diverse other plant life, maintenance of natural mulch, and protection/buffering of waterways.

These standards have been shown to support native bird life as well as providing habitat for many other native species, including mammals.

The Effects of the Central Coast’s Coffee Shed

Here on California’s central coast, we are lucky to have both coffee AND birds that hail from coffee growing regions. Judging from the aroma of roasting coffee, the many businesses supported by serving coffee, and the plethora of local coffee labels, our region greatly appreciates this caffeinated beverage. I am curious about how many acres of coffee farms are needed to support Santa Cruz County’s coffee-drinking habits – anyone know? We can call that our ‘coffee-shed.’ If we support a coffee shed that nurtures the birds that come visit us in the summers, we can look into those birds’ sparkling eyes through the steam of a latte and be proud of those connections…

Beautiful Migratory Songbirds

There are many migratory bird species that come to California’s central coast for the summer to nest, raise young and store up enough reserves to return south before our winter gets too harsh. I’ve been enjoying steaming cups of shade grown coffee while watching two beautiful tropical migratory songbirds this summer. The startling colored thick-billed black headed grosbeak is fledging young right now on the Central Coast. Check out this photo from a Flickr site by Kersti Niebelsek; maybe this striking image will inspire you to purchase certified shade-grown coffee and grab some binoculars to see the bird in the wild.

The other striking species that lights up my mornings and gets me pouring boiling water to drip through freshly ground, certified shade grown coffee is the lazuli bunting. Be similarly inspired by another extraordinary photo, this time by Flickr user Julio Mulero who captured this pretty bird at Ed Levine Park in Milpitas.

Both that grosbeak and the bunting may have traveled from the coffee growing region of southern Mexico, where they spent last winter. Other species come from coffee growing areas even farther away, including: ash-throated flycatcher, olive-sided flycatcher, Wilson’s warbler and yellow warbler. That last deserves a photo, as well. That photo is compliments of Flickr user Kelly Colgan Azar.

Finding and Procuring Certified Shade Grown Coffee

Surprisingly, it is Very Difficult to find certified shade grown coffee in our area. You can always search the internet and have it delivered! Last I checked Whole Foods had one of its wall of coffees that was certified shade grown. Not so for any of our other local grocery stores! You can find all sorts of supposedly “bird friendly” or “shade grown” coffees, but only those with the certification shown above are verifiable. Because shade-grown coffee produces less per acre, you are going to pay more for it. Think of those extra dollars going to the trust funds for these beautiful birds.

This post originally published as part of my series with Bruce Bratton at BrattonOnline.com Thanks, Bruce, for keeping Santa Cruz actively informed!

Land Ethic

Have you formed ethical standards for your relationship with Earth? Most people teach ethical standards to children in what behaviors are ‘right’ and how best to treat other people. As we grow, we learn through experience how to build on those ethical standards to be good people. But, few people I’ve met have taught their children the ethics of their relationship outside of the human world. How would you answer questions about how to act ethically with the natural world?

Aldo Leopold wrote possibly the most influential modern treatise on this subject, which was published in his Sand County Almanac and entitled The Land Ethic. I suggest you read that 14 page essay first and this second, as I supply a framework for how his thoughts apply in our shared place, the central coast of California.

We Hold These Truths…

Are these statements true to you?

  • Our food, air, and water are products of Nature
  • Nature is very, very complex: there is wisdom in considering the precautionary principle when considering impacts to the natural world
  • As citizens of this particularly ecologically rich place, we have a particularly high level of responsibility for nature conservation.

Land as Economic

As Leopold suggested was normal throughout the USA in 1949, so it is today…we citizens of central California are continuing to commodify nature. We treat our agricultural lands as short-term profit-making properties; most are barely cover cropped so that soil is washing away at tremendous rates, many agricultural properties are awash with fertilizer and chemical pesticides that have had too little human health and environmental impact study. Our conversations around property circle around what ‘rights’ we are afforded, not what duties we have: even knowledgeable people lack the information to well manage private property. Land Trusts commodify land that they hold, managing negatively impactful agriculture, grazing, and other uses and expanding recreational use with little idea of its impacts. Public parks are even more guilty of commodifying nature for highly exploitive, barely planned/monitored recreational uses that are rife with negative impacts on soil and wildlife. Economic interests drive these types of nature commodification, those interests are embedded in even local politics, yet few people vote for candidates based on these types of issues.

Aldo’s Land Ethic

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” – Aldo Leopold

What would happen if we all used Leopold’s land ethic when weighing proposals on natural lands around the Central Coast? For instance, how would application of that ethic affect how you feel about the development of the Homeless Garden Project in the middle of Pogonip Greenbelt’s main meadow? What about the way proposals have been made for the new trails at Cotoni Coast Dairies? What would you think about the plans for post-fire re-building of Big Basin State Park’s visitor center?  How do your feelings on those proposals compare with how you think about applying Leopold’s Land Ethic to the planned wildlife tunnel under Highway 17…to restoring the Scott Creek Marsh on the North Coast?

Is Education Enough?

Most people with whom I discuss the Land Ethic emphasize a problem Leopold anticipated: they focus on a perceived need for more education before it will be possible to apply the Land Ethic. I have spoken with leaders and practitioners of environmental education around the Monterey Bay, and they all reiterate the primary need for education until a more ethical approach to Nature can take hold. And yet, almost none of these educators are familiar with well-established tools to change human behavior towards the environment. I wonder how many would be able to help others by describing what a Land Ethic might be?

The same goes for most staff whose jobs entail environmental protection. Parks law enforcement staff rarely give tickets for environmental destruction, preferring ‘education.’ Municipal planning agency personnel rely almost entirely on education in hopes that it will serve to protect nature in the Central Coast. The personnel responsible for protecting whales and other marine mammals in the Monterey Bay also entirely rely on education to accomplish their mission. With the many interactions I’ve witnessed with these individuals, none have ever tried to help elevate awareness of the ethics of caring for Nature. I have heard political decision makers cite anything like the Land Ethic very, very few times.

The Central Coast has a large variety of environmental organizations focused on environmental education. I hope that they will incorporate the Land Ethic in their curricula, including the many available local case studies to further illustrate lessons.

A Place for Science?

We are lucky to have the California Environmental Quality Act (aka CEQA) as a potential to start the conversation about portions of Leopold’s suggested Land Ethic. For instance, lead agencies using CEQA might ask ‘How does the proposed project affect the integrity of the biotic community?’ What if this question were posed about the numerous wetlands that will be obliterated along the proposed Rail Trail on the North Coast? I would anticipate that the lead agency would pick scientist-consultants to outline a restoration program somewhere along the coast that would ‘improve’ the integrity of wetlands in the project vicinity…checking that box in CEQA…and proceeding with the project. The ‘improved’ wetlands would likely have some attention for restoration for 3 years, but with no long term proposal for management or monitoring. It is very likely that the more correct answer to the Land Ethic-informed question would be ‘the proposed project negatively affects the integrity of the biotic community.’ But, even in the unlikely possibility that the lead agency received that answer from their paid consultants, they would likely proceed with a “statement of overriding considerations” and proceed anyway…because there is no chance that anyone would be held accountable during their election to political office. In short, there is a lot of demand for consultant-scientists to create plans that appear to address the Land Ethic but which in fact are just the excuse a project proponent needed to proceed with their destruction of Nature.

The Solution?

Any decision maker in our region whose work impacts the environment should have access to the smartest ecologists around, so that they receive the best information possible to make excellent decisions to conserve nature. For a while, this happened in the Santa Cruz County Planning office. That model could expand. There are certainly a very many well respected biologists in our region who we might learn from!

-this originally published in Bruce Bratton’s weekly blog BrattonOnline.com

Save the Bees!

As the fields of lupine blossom at higher and higher elevations, other flowers follow in wave after wave of color and design, and the bees dance and hum celebrating each new unfolding.

Bees! There are so many types of bees: mason, bumble, leaf cutter, long horned, orchard…For each of those, there are many species. For instance, there are 10 species of bumble bees in Santa Cruz County. As with most species on Earth, all those bee species are in decline.

Flower Pollination

Bees pollinate flowers. Sure, there are other types of pollinators such as butterflies, moths, and flies. Even some types of mosquitoes and ants pollinate flowers…as do hummingbirds. But, bees are the most important pollinators in general.

Evolutionarily, bee (and other) pollination gives plants the advantage of shaking up the genetics, helping populations of plants be more resilient to change in climate, disease, and even fluxes in pollinator communities.

Invasion of the Honeybee

Honeybees are not native to our area, and yet they are everywhere. They were introduced in the late 1600’s to the United States and then moved around more easily in portable hives in the mid-1700’s. In California, beekeepers earn money by strategically moving large numbers of hive boxes into agricultural areas to perform pollination services. When they aren’t doing that work, they must find areas to put those boxes where there are enough flowers to feed the bees and keep them healthy. Especially in wintertime, coastal areas in California are prized by beekeepers because it is not too cold for flowers; something is bound to be in bloom year-round. At the same time, honeybees have escaped into the wild, becoming naturalized. Swanton’s Jim West has documented a honeybee colony year after year in an old redwood tree for most of his 74 years of life.

Honeybee on Ceanothus; nonnative bee on native shrub

The Good Honeybee

Most of us know about all the good honeybees can do from pollination to honey and wax production. Almond growers in California’s Central Valley have been particularly worried about the ongoing problems with honeybees as they have been reliant on imported bees to pollinate their early-flowering trees so that they will make nuts. With the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder, honey and beeswax prices have increased, making us appreciate even more honeybee production.

The Bad Honeybee

Most people I talk to are unaware of the problems honeybees can cause, including competition with native pollinators, plant community changes, invasive plant species proliferation, and disease vectoring. I was lucky to attend UC Santa Cruz at the same time as the brilliant Dr. Diane Thomson who has studied honeybee and native bee interactions in our area for decades. Her research adds to a growing body of scientific evidence warning us about the negative consequences of honeybees to native bees, with whom they compete. That science has suggested that 20 honeybee boxes rob the food from 2 million native bees. This competition can cause some plant species to be pollinated and not others, shifting the composition of plant communities. And, because honeybees can pollinate some invasive species more than native bees, they can cause bad trouble, like adding momentum to thistle problems. Oh, and by the way….honeybees carry diseases and parasites that can negatively affect native bees. For example, there is a virus that causes bumble bees to have deformed wings – honeybees carry it!

In the last few decades, Randall Morgan documented the diversity of bees in Santa Cruz County.

The Good Native Bees

Native bees are important for pollination, contributing to crop production for humans and food production for wildlife. Dr. Claire Kremen and others have shown that California farms that have a good amount of native bee habitat around them have better crop pollination. Native bees are also essential for pollinating native species of plants, which produce fruit that are important for wildlife. For instance, native bumblebees pollinate manzanita flowers, which produce fruit that is eaten by native foxes and many bird species. Likewise, native bees pollinate coffeeberry bushes that produce fruit eaten by lots of birds, including band tailed pigeons as well as foxes and coyotes. There are many other examples of the natural fruit that is wildlife food made possible by native pollinators.

What You Can Do

You can help conserve native pollinators by helping do the right thing with nonnative honeybees. The first thing to do is help spread the word about these issues. To learn more, read this publication by The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. That paper has good details about where it is, and isn’t, appropriate for raising honeybees. This caution caught my attention: don’t put hives within 4 miles of “habitats of special value for biodiversity and/or pollinators:” I suggest that this covers most of Santa Cruz County, which has special habitats full of rare pollinators throughout. The plethora of native bee habitats throughout our area would also suggest good potential for gardens and farms to be visited by enough native pollinators to perform enough pollination for the fruits we desire. Besides not placing more honeybees near native habitat, there are other things you can do.

If you know a beekeeper who wants bees, you might point them in the direction of harvesting bee swarms out of native areas and exporting them to urban or agricultural areas where they can do some good and avoid impacts to native pollinators. Also…read below about avoiding bug zappers and darkening night lighting. Finally, reducing or eliminating pesticide use is also important. One of the biggest threats to native bees (and honeybees!) is neonic pesticides; to learn more and write a letter to California’s decision makers, see this Natural Resources Defense Council webpage.

Bug Zappers

I’ve recently heard about people in our area using ‘bug zappers’ that attract insects to ultraviolet light and then electrocute them with a grid of electrified screen. Anyone buying one of these devices has been scammed: they do not work against biting insects. Instead, they kill a broad range of native insects that might have otherwise performed pollination, controlled pests, or fed birds. On top of that, the owner destroys their own nighttime peace with obnoxious electrocution noise and light. Oh…and speaking of light-

Night Lighting is Bad

Turn off outdoor lighting! Darken your windows. Anything you can do to make for a darker nighttime world will help conserve native insects and pollinators. Find out more with the International Dark-Sky Association. Urge local decision makers to reduce light pollution.

-this post originally posted in Bruce Bratton’s online blog at BrattonOnline.com