Here’s the Buzz
The sting on bees is this: We need them.
Did you know that one-third of the fruit and veggies we eat are pollinated by bees? Or that there are more than 1,500 types of non-honey-producing bees native to California? Some 85 of these have been identified buzzing in and around Berkeley and Oakland, collecting pollen and nectar, digging holes and laying eggs.
And then there is the honeybee. It both pollinates plants and regurgitates nectar to produce its sweet and luscious harvest. But the honeybee is in jeopardy, thanks to a little-understood killer condition known as colony collapse disorder, in which honeybees, for no apparent reason, abruptly die off.
Are you aware that without native bees, where individual species have evolved to service different plants, we would have no apricots, almonds, apples, melons, squash, pumpkins, berries, chilies, tomatoes or tangerines? The list of good and tasty bee-dependent items goes on and on, reading like a good-health dictionary of to-die-for culinary delights.
Sharing these facts and statistics is Gordon Frankie, Ph.D., professor and research entomologist in the Division of Insect Biology at Cal. His sometimes giggly but generally rapt audience is sitting on straw bales in the shade of a live oak tree in the Alice Waters–inspired Edible Garden at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley. Frankie is assisted in his mission—dispelling myths and revealing the benefits of bees—by UC Berkeley ecology students Jaime Paquin and Sara Witt. They pass around pictures of foods made possible by the pollinating panache of bees. Included is the Big Mac burger (its tomato, lettuce, beef and bun have pollination connections). Then Paquin and Witt carry around sleeping bees for the teens to touch and observe. Bees are cold-blooded, Frankie explains, so if you catch a bee in a net, put it in a screw-top bottle and refrigerate it for an hour, it will doze off, at which point you can hold it and examine it up close.
Frankie likes to teach children about bees. Who knows? Maybe he will inspire one of them like he was inspired. “Why am I interested in bees? They’re cool. That’s why,” he says. He started collecting insects when he was 15, but he soon discovered bees, and they became his passion and his focus.
“Have you read Last Child in the Woods—Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder?” he asks me as an aside. Frankie thinks all parents should read the book, by Richard Louv. “It’s about the importance of getting kids away from computers and outdoors looking at things,” he explains. “Gardens are one way to encourage this. Getting kids seeing what birds and bees are doing can have a lot of value. They begin to appreciate nature and then they want to know more.”
Gardens are contagious, he adds. If one class at a school has a garden, other classes want them too.
Frankie’s specialty is the native bee. These bees don’t live in hives, like the honeybee, he tells this class. Mainly solitary, they have three concerns: pollen, nectar and sex. This elicits more giggles. Males and females need nectar for energy. The females collect pollen to store in the nests many species dig in the soil. Mulch? Avoid using it if you value bees, he pronounces.
people are overly concerned with the ouch factor. “Bees don’t want to sting you,” he tells the class, speaking loudly to compete with the agitated clucking of one of the Edible Garden scurrying chickens. “Their first line of defense is to fly away. Their second is to buzz you. They will not And then he shares a lot of other facts. For instance, only the honeybee dies after delivering a sting. And only female bees sting. And most sting unless you harass them.”
Did you know that you can garden to attract native bees? And that in doing so, you can help create a genetic reserve? “With the growth of cities and urban environments, bee habitats are dwindling,” Paquin notes. “We need to nurture native bees, especially in the face of colony collapse disorder. Some commercial beekeepers have lost up to 90 percent of their colonies in the past year,” she adds. No underlying cause has been identified. The impact, however, extends way beyond honey production.
The day before his lesson at the Edible Garden, Frankie welcomed a group of adult gardeners to his UC Berkeley experimental garden, created in a section of the Oxford Tract. That’s where he and his students observe the relationship between bees and plants. He has shrubs, weeds, flowers, exotics and natives, herbs, vegetables—anything one might think of planting. The result of this work is a long list of bee-friendly plant suggestions available on the bee garden Web site (http:/nature.berkeley.edu/urbanbeegardens). Bee gardens, he points out, are aesthetically pleasing and serve an ecological function. They are for the conservation conscious and are great for educating children.
Seems it’s time to get a bee in your bonnet about planting the right garden, honey!
—By Wanda Hennig