Archives for posts with tag: pollinators

It’s been a bit over a month since I’ve posted about the bees. It’s not that there isn’t anything interesting happening; au contraire! I’ve been busy with them, whether mine or someone else’s, nearly every weekend. I simply have not taken the time to organize my thoughts about what to write.

Since I began learning about beekeeping, I find myself questioning my own motives, as well as those of other well-meaning folks who want to help “save the bees”.  Non-native honeybees, as far as I can tell, are not the pollinators desperately in need of our help.  Humans generally recognize the importance of honeybees in pollinating our food crops and, since they are useful to us, these bees tend to receive the attention they need. Plus, the increased attention on honeybees has been instrumental in conversations to limit pesticide use, which helps far more species. So I’m not completely knocking the honeybee; rather, I am simply cautioning that there are native bee species who may need our care more.  What about species that aren’t as charismatic as our sweet little honeybee?

The diverse array of native bees, of which there are 1600 species in California alone, are left mostly to their own devices. Fitting, I suppose, since many are solitary bees.  However, to compound the issue, not only have we eliminated much of the native habitats and open spaces these species depend on for nesting and foraging, but the landscape is swarming in non-native honeybees who out-compete these locally-adapted species. Native bee species tend to be specialists that are evolved to forage on plants local to their environment. Non-native species, like honeybees, can take advantage of a wider variety of species, and in better pollinating them, help those to spread even wider.

So where does all this leave me and my wee colony of bees? Well, they are growing well. So well that I needed to buy an emergency extension when the equipment order did not arrive in time (a local beekeeper was generous and offered me a loan, but I was pretty sure I’d need the gear eventually). I don’t want to be a beekeeper who is casting swarms about willy-nilly and adding to the problem; I don’t think it’s particularly neighborly to do so when living in a residential area.

In my last hive inspection, I did a sugar roll to count the number of mites and found two, which equates to less than one mite per hundred bees and is in the acceptable limits. I’ll do another count in a week or so as part of Mite-a-Thon, a citizen science project to track mite numbers across North America.  I sent the inspection video to a few family members as a preview, and my mum supplied me with some questions that I’d like to answer here for her and others. I think my mum asks some pretty great questions about things that I tend to go over quickly or ignore assuming everyone knows what they are. Anywhoo, I hope you’ll find these interesting:

  1. Q: Did I ever find the queen? A: That day, nope, I don’t think I did; but there were other signs of her somewhat recent presence through young larvae.
  2. Q: What are those two cups for that were on the first few frames? A: Those are the start of queen cells, signs that the bees might be feeling a little cramped for space or that the queen isn’t doing an adequate job. Not things one wants to find in the colony, and signs that make finding either the queen or eggs important.
  3. Q: What was that white looking screen for? A: That is a queen excluder. The spacing is such that the larger-sized queen can’t get past it, but the workers can. It’s used for limiting where the queen can go and lay eggs.
  4. Q: Every time you inspect the hive, you have casualties? A: Yes, unfortunately. It’s one of the reasons to not inspect too frequently. Every 2 – 4 weeks is recommended, depending on timing and other considerations.
  5. Q: What do you think the bees think when you put all the sugar on them? A: “WTF, lady? Get this shit off of me!”
  6. Q: What happens with all those bees flying around afterwards? A: They all go back home. They know exactly where it is and will go back to their home with their queen, who is the only one that can reproduce. An individual bee can’t survive by herself. She needs the hive and her sisters for food, warmth, and protection.

…Don’t you know that you can count me out!

Destruction, you say? Yes, today’s post is dedicated avoiding the destruction caused from pesticide use. Pesticides are great for control of some species, the problem is that they tend to have deleterious effects on even more than the intended species. Our native bees, honey bees, and many other pollinators are affected by their widespread use. In my yard, my goal is to use them only occasionally and very specifically to treat individual problems, like Argentine ants or an individual plant that has proven difficult to remove. In doing so, the nuisance weeds are mostly under control and I can remove by hand what remains each rainy season. After three years of diligent effort, I’ve done a pretty thorough job of depleting the seed bank and their is much less germination each year. One of the keys is to pull the weed out prior to it flowering and setting seed, creating hundreds more just waiting for a little water.

Systemic herbicides are particularly harmful for pollinators as the poison residues can remain in the plant for months and can even wind up in the nectar and pollen. Try to source plants that are herbicide- and pesticide-free. Talk to your local nurseries and ask questions about how they start their plants.  As more people express interest in organic methods, it may encourage suppliers to change their practices and provide other options.  The same is true for native plant options. If nurseries know that people are interested in these choices, they may begin stocking a wider variety.

Pesticides and herbicides are usually indicative of other problems. Weeds popping up everywhere? Try changing the watering regime, or applying water only where needed to maintain desired plants. Even better, use plants native to the area you live so that you won’t need to apply supplemental water as often. Weeds germinate when there is ample water for them, so cutting off the water helps to cut off the weeds.

Pest infestations may be a symptom of a stressor such as drought, poor air circulation, or poor soil conditions. Remedy the larger problem and the pest will not be able to access the plant. This can be seen on a landscape scale in California where there have been beetle infestations that have severely damaged certain tree species. The issue is largely with the long-running drought, and the drought-stressed tree tissue created openings through which the beetle could enter. The beetle is a symptom of a larger problem with changing precipitation patterns. Killing the beetle simply results in certain individuals withstanding the poison and those creating more beetles that are resistant, requiring more and ever stronger poisons.

In other cases, pesticides are used to cure what is entirely an aesthetic issue. For example an aphid-infested milkweed is not pleasant to the eye, but those aphids, for the most part, will not actually harm the plant and a pesticide treatment is not usually necessary. Reserving pesticide use for cases where the plant may be killed is one way to reduce our use of these poisons.

In a properly functioning ecosystem, everything works in harmony. The small insects feed larger insects that feed lizards, birds, and other critters.

An unlucky bee wound up as this spider’s next meal.

Those fruit flies that swarm in the early spring are eaten by mama hummingbird who needs the extra protein to feed her rapidly growing nestlings. Adult hummingbirds also eat small insects as a small part of their diet. I actually leave fruit peels outside to “grow” more fruit flies for them to enjoy, or at this time of year, some of the guava fall to the ground and hatches new fruit flies. I can never eat all the guava we have, but I make some jam and leave the rest for the birds and coyote who we have observed enjoying them.

The bushtits also make their rounds through the trees, gleaning small aphids and other insects from the leaves. I can usually hear them coming, entire family in tow, with their bell-tinkling sound as they pass from the front of our neighbor’s succulents, ficus, and dwarf pomegranate to our guava, grapefruit, and apple trees.

An adult female bushtit, photo from

I noticed for the first time this year black phoebe in the backyard. Phoebes are in the flycatcher guild. They eat much more than flies, but they catch flying insects on the wing. I assume they were attracted to the bees and variety of other pollinators that were covering the elderberry and toyon this year. This was the first year that both of those plants flowered wildly, and the insects and birds were thankful for the abundance. I’m always ecstatic to see a new species in the yard, and phoebes are a particular favourite. They have a pretty, simple song and they’re quite handsome decked out in their tuxedos.

A very handsome black phoebe courtesy of

You’re an apartment dweller you say and don’t have a yard? Or you already eschew pesticide use? There are other ways for you to help! You can select foods produced with fewer pesticides and in ways that benefit our pollinators.

There is a certification program recently created by the Xerces Society: Bee Better. To be certified, a company pledges to create pollinator habitat and to use less pesticides. So far, Haagen-Dazs is certified for certain almond-containing products, as are a California berry brand (Giant). Look for the logo when you’re selecting your groceries or look online for more information.

Our pollinators need help. According to the Bee Better website, 28% of bumble bee species in North America are declining. Try a few of these ideas and see if you can reduce your use of pesticides and herbicides to help our bees. Let me know how it goes! Whether it’s a success or abject failure, there is much to learn either way.

Well, you know

We all want to change the world. 

And where better to start than in our own homes?  Many people are aware of the problems bees are having, primarily caused from habitat loss, extensive pesticide use, and pathogens like mites.  What people may not know is that there are many species of bees and there are simple steps everyone can take to create habitat and support their survival.

The non-native honey bee, brought here from Europe, is the only bee species in North America that nests in large colonies, and there is some concern that they compete with native bees for resources.  Our native bees nest in the ground or plant stems.  They are generally called solitary bees because they don’t live in large colonies like honey bees.  You may even find one over-nighting curled inside a flower.  I’ve found them in my mallows if I’m up early when the blooms are opening.

Bumble in mallow (Photo courtesy of

Nesting sites can easily be created for these native bees in our yards.  Ground nesting bees need small areas of open, bare soil preferably in direct sunlight.  Avoid using a heavy mulch or weed-fabric, which the bees can’t get through, or if you do use these in most of your yard, leave small openings available for the bees.  Tunnel-nesting bees use pithy-stemmed plants (examples: asters, goldenrod, and elderberry), logs, or brush piles.  Commercially made bee houses can also be purchased or you can look online for ways to make one yourself. 

I had wondered who, if anyone, was using the bee house I had placed on the side of our house a couple years ago. Turns out this mason wasp was.

Bumble bees will use messy, unmown areas particularly in native bunch grasses.  I was happy to learn this information since I’ve included a selection of bunch grasses in our backyard planting plan.

Bumble bee on my lilac hedge last winter.

What all bees need, besides a place to call home, is nectar and pollen.  Bees collect nectar and pollen for their own use and pollination of those plants is a happy by-product of their activities.  Honey bees pollinate a tremendous number of food plants, and some of our native bees are even better pollinators for certain plants.  In fact, some plants, like tomatoes and blueberries, aren’t pollinated by honey bees at all; instead, they require bumble bees or other native bee species for something called buzz pollination, which is a method of pollination that honey bees can’t perform. The bee grabs onto the flower and then moves its flight muscles quickly dislodging the pollen. How cool is that?!

Thousands of flowers are needed to support a single bee.  Use a variety of plants in your garden and strive to have something blooming every season.  Look to your local native plant societies for ideas, including plant lists with a calendar of what blooms when.  California Native Plant Society and Xerces Society provide free resources on their websites, including online trainings and downloadable plant guides.  Native plants support a wider variety of native pollinators, particularly specialist species.  They also tend to require less water, fertilizer, and pesticides, as they are adapted to your area.  One of the local native plant nurseries that I love, Moosa Creek, has an online tool to help you select native plants to replace common non-native ornamentals like lawn, ivy, and privet. 

Even if you don’t have a yard, you can help pollinators.  Some companies have initiated pollinator programs.  One of my moms showed me one the other day through Purina Beyond pet food.  They’ve created Project Blossom and partnered with The Nature Conservancy to contribute towards their efforts to protect and create pollinator habitat.  Purina provides more information and ways to help on their page. 

You can also participate in citizen science projects that help scientist collect data on what species can be found where and when.  One example is called Bumble Bee Watch where you submit pictures of bumble bees to their website.  They’ll help you to ID the bumble bee and an expert will verify the species.  These types of projects allow everyone to participate in data collection and allow scientists to learn more than they can on their own, particularly about rare and hard to find species.  In recent years a number of bumble bee species across the U.S. have been listed or proposed for listing as endangered or threatened.    

There you have it. A few small actions that you can take towards a bee-volution. Stay tuned and I’ll share some other ways to help in the future, mainly through reducing our use of pesticides.

But when you talk about destruction

Don’t you know that you can count me out.

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