Don’t give na­tive bees short shrift

Euro­pean honey bees get a lot of at­ten­tion, but oth­ers are pro­lific pol­li­na­tors that don’t swarm.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

The Euro­pean honey bee was brought to this con­ti­nent in the early 1600s, but not to pol­li­nate crops. Rather, early set­tlers sought beeswax to make can­dles. Na­tive bees, which are mostly soli­tary ground-dwellers, were ef­fec­tive pol­li­na­tors but did not pro­vide sig­nif­i­cant quan­ti­ties of wax or honey.

It wasn’t un­til the 1980s, when large-scale industrial farm­ing be­gan to re­place fam­ily farm­ing, that the honey bee be­came im­por­tant to agri­cul­ture. In­stead of a mix of crops grown on smaller plots, of­ten sep­a­rated by hedgerows, a sin­gle crop would be grown on vast stretches of land. Masses of flow­ers were bloom­ing all at once, re­quir­ing an in­flux of pol­li­na­tors.

En­ter the honey bees, a con­ve­nient fit for this sort of farm­ing. They form huge colonies that can be trans­ported into the mid­dle of a field while a par­tic­u­lar crop is bloom­ing.

But how has the Euro­pean honey bee — a non-na­tive species as­so­ci­ated with industrial agri­cul­ture — be­come a dar­ling of the U.S. en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment? Credit the dras­tic in­crease in colony col­lapse dis­or­der, a phe­nom­e­non in which most of the worker bees dis­ap­pear from a hive. It has raised farm­ing costs, caused con­ster­na­tion among sci­en­tists and gov­ern­ment agen­cies, and given rise to a back-to-na­ture move­ment of peo­ple try­ing to save the bees by es­tab­lish­ing hives among high-rise rooftops and sub­ur­ban backyards, in­clud­ing in Los An­ge­les.

But the Euro­pean honey bee is not fac­ing ex­tinc­tion. Yes, too many hives are lost each year and no clear so­lu­tion is in sight, but bee­keep­ers are able to re­place those colonies through a process called hive-split­ting. Bee losses have ac­tu­ally de­clined sig­nif­i­cantly in re­cent years, though they rose again this year. In any event, am­a­teur hive-tend­ing isn’t likely to make a big dif­fer­ence to the honey bee’s fu­ture, ex­perts say; backyard hives are twice as likely to fail as com­mer­cial ones.

Un­for­tu­nately, the sin­gle-minded fo­cus on Euro­pean honey bees — on ban­ning cer­tain pes­ti­cides, for in­stance, or al­low­ing backyard bee­keep­ing in Los An­ge­les, which the City Coun­cil is on the verge of do­ing — has ob­scured the im­por­tance of na­tive bees. Few peo­ple are even aware that they ex­ist, yet there are 1,500 species in Cal­i­for­nia alone. Pro­vided with the right habi­tat — a va­ri­ety of flow­er­ing plants that aren’t sprayed with pes­ti­cide — they’ll thrive in the ground or in holes in pieces of wood. They’re easy neigh­bors: pro­lific pol­li­na­tors that don’t swarm. Most of them don’t sting, and they don’t suf­fer from colony col­lapse dis­or­der. They come in all kinds, from the metal­lic emer­ald of the ul­tra-green sweat bee to the fuzzy black-and-yel­low Cal­i­for­nia bum­ble­bee that ex­cels at pol­li­nat­ing toma­toes. And they need help; dozens of species na­tion­wide are in dan­ger of ex­tinc­tion from loss of habi­tat.

Be­cause th­ese bees are largely soli­tary ground-dwellers, they can’t be shipped en masse to a flow­er­ing agri­cul­tural field. Yet they can help solve the honey bee prob­lem. Re­search has shown that farms would need to make only mod­est changes to at­tract healthy num­bers and va­ri­eties of the lo­cal pol­li­na­tors. Bees, both honey and na­tive, need con­tin­ual sources of food — i.e. flow­ers — while monocrop agri­cul­ture pro­vides flow­ers for only a short pe­riod. Plant­ing a few dif­fer­ent crops with dif­fer­ent flow­er­ing times would make a ma­jor dif­fer­ence, re­search has found. Bet­ter yet, plant­ing the perime­ters of those fields with old-fash­ioned hedgerows — nar­row rows of wild shrubs — has been found to pro­vide am­ple habi­tat for na­tive bees.

Such changes would be good for honey bees as well. If they feast on only one crop, says UC Berke­ley bee re­searcher Claire Kre­men, they are more likely to have nu­tri­tional de­fi­cien­cies that con­trib­ute to hive col­lapse. An anal­y­sis of crops world­wide found that when na­tive bees co­ex­ist with honey bees, pro­duc­tion in­creases sub­stan­tially.

As Los An­ge­les moves to­ward its own bee­keep­ing or­di­nance, the coun­cil should con­sider this: If the goal is to strengthen the bee pop­u­la­tion — both na­tive and Euro­pean — the best strat­egy is to give res­i­dents in­cen­tives to grow more flow­ers and avoid treat­ing them with pes­ti­cides, en­to­mol­o­gist Marla Spi­vak says. It’s the per­fect mes­sage for th­ese drought-trou­bled times any­way, when home­own­ers are re­plac­ing lawns with na­tive plants. It won’t pro­vide ar­ti­sanal honey, but it will pro­mote healthy bee pop­u­la­tions, in­clud­ing hun­dreds of species that won’t swarm or sting.

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