From a bee’s point of view, the landscape has changed dramatically over the past few hundred years.
According to naturalist John Muir, “When California was wild, it was one sweet bee-garden throughout its entire length, north and south, and all the way across from the snowy Sierra to the ocean.”
Even in 1894, Muir decried how “plows and sheep have made sad havoc in these glorious pastures, destroying tens of thousands of the flowery acres like a fire.”
Much more has changed in the 125 years since then. In towns and cities as well as on farms, bee habitat has become scarcer and more fragmented.
Bees are often taken for granted, yet in China, overuse of pesticides has devastated the bee population so much that people have begun the tedious, labor-intensive task of hand-pollinating pear orchards.
To stop such an ecological breakdown from occurring here, researchers have been studying exactly how bees work and what they need on a landscape level.
I chatted with Kim Chacon, who delivered a talk on “Resilient Bee Landscapes” at the California Native Plant Society’s Gardening for Biodiversity in a Climate Crisis symposium at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills in September. Chacon is a doctoral student at UC Davis studying bee habitat analysis and landscape design. Her goal is to improve landscapes as bee habitats, based on research.
To make a garden attractive to bees, the general advice is as follows.
• Avoid pesticides.
• Plan to always have something in bloom from February to October, when bees are active.
• Provide a minimum area of plants, though Chacon said recommendations differ. Some sources say at least 2 square meters (approximately 36 square feet) of mixed plants; others recommend at least 1 square meter of each plant.
• Plant the right plants. Two books that recommend plants based on field testing are “California Bees and Blooms” (G. Frankie et al., Heyday Books, 1914) and “Attracting Native Pollinators” (Xerces Society, Storey Books, 2011).
Individual gardens can provide good bee habitat. But if they are isolated bubbles of habitat in a community of lawns, the bee populations won’t be as resilient.
For better genetic diversity and ecological resilience, and a better chance of weathering climate change, a network or corridor of habitats is far more valuable. Flowering native plants are especially important in the spring; herbs and other non-natives also can support pollinators in late summer.
If you already have a yard buzzing with a diversity of bees, think about supporting the crucial work of bees on a landscape level. If your house is in a development with a homeowners association or you have an active neighborhood group, one way to help bees is to promote, say, 10 plants that every front yard can incorporate to provide better pathways for bees.
“Think of pollination as infrastructure,” Chacon said.
Pollination is both necessary and fundamental. Bees are a keystone species, which means they provide ecological services that benefit many other species and have a unique and crucial role in the ecosystem.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, approximately “75% of the world’s food crops depend at least in part on pollination.”
European honeybees can forage up to 2 miles from their hive, and they are the most efficient pollinators. But because of Colony Collapse Disorder and other vulnerabilities, a resilient landscape cannot depend solely on honeybees.
The decline in honeybee populations means native, or wild, bees are even more important. California has 1,600 species of native bees, which are primarily solitary and travel a quarter-mile from the nest. Many native bees nest in bare patches of sunny ground; others nest in dry plant stems or tree cavities.
For more information on Chacon’s research, visit beelandscapes.com.