Yes, We Have Native Bees
When I told a co-worker I was going to a lecture about local native bees, he said, “I thought there weren’t any native bees, just European honey bees.”
That’s what I thought, too. As a matter of fact, I even naively thought that before the introduction of honey bees 400 years ago, there were no bees in North America. I found out how wrong I was at the native bee program at Deukmejian Park a couple weeks ago.
The City of Glendale has a wonderful Trails and Open Space program based out of Deukmejian Wilderness Park. It organizes trail building and tree planting, and puts on an amazing array of lectures and hikes. Over the years I’ve learned about such subjects as local geology, viticulture and winemaking, and medicinal native herbs. To find out about upcoming programs visit tp://www.glendaleca.gov/government/city-departments/community-services-parks/trails-and-open-space or call (818) 548-3795 for a recorded message. If you email TrailOpenSpace@glendaleca.gov they’ll send you a monthly schedule of events.
The program on native bees was put on by Michelle Rivers, a charming young immigrant from Northern England. She had worked on bumblebee research there, and here in Southern California was reveling in our vast variety of bees. Here are just a few of the basics about our local native bees that we learned in her hands-on lecture.
While we’re all familiar with the classic honey bee we see buzzing about our gardens, there is a whole other world of native bees that we don’t even notice buzzing around those same flowers. Michelle told us there are about 1600 different varieties here in California that vary so much in shape, color and size that many are unrecognizable as bees.
While we usually think of bees making honey, the reality is that pollination is their major function. Agriculture would literally fail without bee pollination. Pollinating bees are absolutely vital to man’s survival. We learned from Michelle that although native bees don’t produce harvestable honey, they do a much better job of pollinating than honey bees. In fact they pollinate many food plants that honey bees do poorly with, such as alfalfa, melons, cranberries, blueberries, soybeans and sunflowers. Some plants like tomato, potato and eggplant are mainly pollinated by something called “buzz-pollination,” which can only be done by native bees. In a scenario that sounds fantastic, native bees position themselves under a flower and begin to vibrate, or buzz, hitting around 400 Hz. Once they hit exactly the right pitch, the plant vibrates in resonance and dumps a load of pollen on the bee. Honey bees can’t do this!
Native bees have so far been resistant to the much publicized bee die-off or colony collapse that is affecting the world’s honey bee population. As well, native bees don’t compete with honey bees, and visa-versa. While non-native honey bees are social, the majority of native bees are solitary. They live alone, laying eggs in holes in the ground or in dead wood, and feed their young with the pollen they collect, rather than making honey.
After amazing us with these facts, Michelle took us outside to find some native bees. Standing beside a flowering bush, we saw hundreds of honey bees. But looking closer we began to notice smaller, darker bees among the crowd, bees that in the past I would have dismissed as young bees. These were one variety of native bees. Next we were buzzed by one of those big black bumblebees, the carpenter bee. This is another native bee, and a buzz-pollinator as well. With a fine mesh net, Michelle then collected a few native bees for a close-up look. One bee she caught was a bright green metallic color, looking nothing like a bee. Another was literally the size of a gnat. As a sideline she snatched up a couple of flies that are camouflaged to look like bees for self-protection. It was a mind-blower for me, and I’ll never look at bees the same way again.
So get out in your yard and watch the bees. Now look a little closer, past those normal bees. You’ll discover a whole new world of native bees.