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.
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.
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!
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.
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