Fall 2013 Online Extra

Bee and apple blossom

Bees, Please! 

One in three bites of our food depends on a single workforce in California’s agricultural system. They work well beyond an 8-hour day, toil in the hottest fields and their numbers exceed even the total number of graduates of the California State University system. Their worth—if you can value the invaluable—exceeds $42 million in our state’s economy.

Introducing the humble bee. No, not just the bumble bee or even the honeybee, although they’re the most celebrated of pollinators. There are more than 20,000 species of bees, according to Byron Love, MS ’10 (Biological Sciences), biological science technician with the USDA.

“We depend on certain species of bees to efficiently and economically take care of pollination of agriculture,” says Love. “It doesn’t matter what your diet is. Your food depends on bees,” he says, linking hamburger back to cows’ diet of alfalfa.

He also cautions that there is a skewed sense of pollination, with the common legend of the social honeybees’ tireless work for the hive and their queen. The quick take is that honeybees aren’t out to pollinate—their job is to collect pollen for their queen.

Additionally, the European honeybees are, as their name suggests, not native to the United States. Resistant for years to North American disease and predators, the recent plight of the honeybee has made national news. But its threats have paved the way for Love and others to explore how native pollinators—including the other 19,999-plus kinds of bees—can augment pollination efforts.

“We work to bring native bees around agriculture, and we’re doing that by managing through their habitat,” Love explains.

And for California agriculture, that’s the real opportunity. It’s not about replacing the honeybees Love adds, but identifying ways that native bees can be managed, or transported to a field where there are current pollination needs. Most bees are solitary, with individual nests in the ground or in think branches, unlike honeybees’ hives that can be boxed and moved to the next field to bloom.   

The complex study of bees is goes beyond Love’s research at the Bee Biology and Systematics Laboratory, affiliated with Utah State University in Logan. The Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association promotes the importance of the one bee Love’s colleagues omit from their studies: the honeybee.

Richard Begley ’70 (Economics), MS ’03 (Counseling), bee enthusiast and editor of the association’s monthly newsletter, says he is drawn to “the extraordinary complexity of the organization of the hive and the behavior of bees.” His interest, like many others in the group, is keen to the role of bees—both native and imported—in our natural and man-made environment, and quickly jumps to what they mean to the Sacramento region.

“Ask the folks at Blue Diamond. Almonds!” Begley enthuses. “If you want almonds, you’d better have bees.”

Love outlines the crops’ dependency on bees. “We’ve manipulated our agricultural system so far beyond the natural cycle,” he explains, noting that farmers’ success relies on the careful timing of their harvests. “In almonds that pulse can happen in a two-week period.”

Whatever the pollinator, both Love and Begley agree that bee education is key. “It helps when people realize that bees in their gardens are not a threat. Native bees are not as aggressive, in fact they’re very docile if they are brought into the environment correctly,” says Love.

Begley and his fellow beekeepers are regular advocates for bees at many fairs and events, including Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Week Festival Saturday, Sept. 29 along Capitol Mall. “We have demonstration hives and honey-tasting and we’re available to answer questions,” he says.

While “Which one is the queen bee?” is almost always the first question from a curious passerby, there is one question Begley wishes more people would ask: What can I do to be more bee friendly?

Bee-Friendly tips

  • Learn about the different species of bees, especially those that are native to California. Not all bees swarm and not all bees sting.
  • Plant “bee-friendly” plants, but beware of those containing systemic pesticides (e.g., neonicitinoids), some of which are sold at large garden centers.
  • Limit the use of garden herbicides and pesticides, which tend to be over-applied by many home gardeners.
  • Buy locally-produced honey instead of the inferior “honey” that may not be 100 percent bee-made.