THERE'S A GREAT NEW ARTICLE about native bees in the March/April issue of Orion magazine. In "The Headbonker's Ball," Matt Jenkins visits a U. of California Berkeley entomologist and grad students who are studying California's native bees. What makes the work of entomologist Gordon Frankie unusual is that he focuses on cities rather than on rural areas. He has found that native bees are doing better in urban areas than they are in California's agricultural regions.
Gardens As Reservoirs
This finding is similar to one I reported last July. That study, conducted in England, found that wildlife-friendly gardens were critical to the survival of threatened British bees. Likewise in the very different environment of California, Frankie and his grad students are finding that properly designed and maintained gardens are now better habitat for bees (and presumably for other pollinators as well) than agricultural areas where farmers grow only one crop and also may make frequent use of pesticides.
In other words, here is still more evidence that what we do in our gardens can be vital to the survival of species. As Frankie puts it in the Orion article, a garden can be "a reservoir of genetic material" helping to keep species alive when their natural habitat has been lost.
Findings From a Bee Garden
In order to explore the contributions gardens can make to survival of native bees, Frankie et al. started an urban bee garden in Berkeley back in 2003. Among their findings: Although a few non-native plants do seem to be helpful to bees, native bees are six times more likely to visit native plants than non-natives. At least in California, plants in the Salvia family (that is, sages) seem to be among the best bee-attracting plants. But Frankie stresses the importance of planting a variety of plants, as different plants attract different bees and plants that bloom at different times provide food throughout the growing season. He also encourages gardeners to dead-head plants as they finish blooming, in order to encourage a second flush of bloom.
Also important: Leave patches of bare earth so that native bees that nest in holes in the ground can find somewhere to live. "Bare earth" means not just soil that is free of plants but also soil that is free of plastic or even thick mulch.