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The EFM Notebook

A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy

by Susan Holloway | Bio

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What’s the Buzz on Bees?

17 Dec 2020 1:18 PM | Gayle Marsh (Administrator)

With all the pandemic and political madness, why should you take an interest in bees? Because they are totally cool, essential to our survival, and in dire need of our help. Let’s get our bee-related synapses firing with a pop quiz!

1.  We’ll start with an easy one…Which of the following is a bee? 


Answer: Did you pick the fuzzy one? Good job!

2.  How many species of bees are there?
a.  Fewer than ten
b.  Ten to 100
c.  Thousands

Answer:  Thousands! This surprised me…

3.  Which of the following insects are experiencing huge die-offs?
a.  Bees
b.  Bees, yellow jackets, and wasps
c.  None of the above

Answer:  The bee population is plummeting, but yellow jackets and wasps are doing fine, which doesn’t seem fair.

4.  What can you do to support the bee community?
a.  Establish pollinator plants in your yard
b.  Encourage elected officials to consider the needs of pollinators when landscaping public areas
c.  Remove and relocate unwanted bee colonies humanely
d.  Count bees as a citizen scientist
e.  All of the above

Answer:  These are all good ideas. Read on for the details!

What Be a Bee?

Which is which?

The kind of bee you may be most familiar with is the honey bee, which was imported from Europe in the middle of the 17th century. There are also thousands of species of wild native bees, one of which is the bumble bee. To keep things simple, I will focus mainly on the honey bee and the bumble bee.

You can probably tell them apart. The round fuzzy bumble bee has two sets of wings. The smaller, thinner honey bee has one set of wings and its head is more separate from its body.

These two kinds of bees are quite different in terms of their behavior. Honey bees are very social and live with thousands of friends and family members. Honey bees use caves, rock cavities and hollow trees as natural nesting sites, and of course they are also kept by bee keepers.


Queen honey bee surrounded by attendants. Sorry Slim Harpo and the Rolling Stones, but there is no such thing as a “king bee.”

  Bumble bee sprinkled with pollen

Bumble bees are also social, but their hives are usually limited to a few hundred individuals. They build nests in burrows or holes in the ground. Most other types of native bees are solitary, but like bumble bees they frequently nest in the ground.

How do these bees stack up in terms of their performance as pollinators? Domesticated honey bees are invaluable to American agriculture. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Honey bees are like flying dollar bills buzzing over U.S. crops….About one-third of the food eaten by Americans comes from crops pollinated by honey bees.”

The crazy thing is that honey bees are not THAT great at pollinating compared to many native bees. For instance, contrast the honey bee with the more patient, focused bumble bee. Bumble bees don’t dash around responding to signals from each other like honey bees do; rather, they quickly and efficiently remove the pollen from a single area. And because they are relatively large they can carry heavier loads than the honey bee. They are also better at learning how to extract pollen from different flowers, so they are good at cross-pollination. And they are more resistant than the relatively flimsy honey bee to cold weather, rain, and limited light conditions.

Even though honey bees get most of the attention, native bees are also useful for pollinating crops. They have a special way of vibrating their bodies to break pollen free as they gather it. This “buzz pollination” makes them particularly good at collecting pollen from  greenhouse tomatoes, blueberries and strawberries, whose anthers release pollen when vibrated.

Threats to Bees

Sick honey bee  
The sharp decline of the honey bee population has received a lot of attention over the past two decades, particularly when the somewhat mysterious colony collapse disorder (CCD) was observed starting in 2006. In colonies associated with CCD, the workers mysteriously desert the hive, leaving the queen and young bees to perish.

Honey bees are also succumbing to mites, fungi, viruses, and bacterial diseases. Pesticides are a huge problem, particularly neionicotinoids, a type of systemic insecticide that is applied to seeds but which remains active throughout the plant’s lifecycle. Bees who ingest the pollen or nectar of treated plants can develop a neurological disorder that leaves them disoriented and confused. Yet another problem is that floral diversity has been reduced as farms are increasingly planted with a single crop.  

Native bees, which often share habitat with honey bees, are under stress from many of the same environmental threats. For instance, recent research has shown that bumble bees are particularly vulnerable to global warming. Because they are large and covered with hair, they stay comfortably warm in cold weather but are miserable when it is hot.

Scientists, government officials, and environmental activists are addressing the plight of the native bees but the situation is extremely dire, and some species have already become extinct.


Native plant garden in Pt. Reyes Station


What Can YOU Do?

Plant a bee-friendly garden

If you have some garden space, whether it is big or small, you can put in some plants to support honey bees and native bees. Basically, they need flowers that provide nectar (sugar and amino acids) and pollen (protein).

Here are some things to think about in terms of food...

1.  Plant in groups to increase pollination efficiency. If a pollinator can visit the same type of flower over and over, it doesn’t have to relearn how to enter the flower and can transfer pollen to the same species more efficiently.

2.  Plant with bloom season in mind, providing food from early spring to late fall.

3.  Select plants of different heights with flowers of varying colors and scents.  

4.  Try to use native plants because they have evolved to support the needs of specific native bees. If you sneak in some non-natives I won’t judge you. Honey bees as well as some native bees are generalists and visit native and non-native plants.
Native plant garden in Southern Marin with plenty of places for bees to nest  

Bees also need a variety of options for protection and nesting…

1.  Leave tree snags (e.g., stumps where a branch has broken off) for nesting sites and other dead plants and leaf litter for shelter.
2.  Build bee boxes to encourage bees to nest on your property.
3.  Leave some bare soil to give ground-nesting bees access to underground tunnels.

A few other things to keep in mind...

Consider the area outside your own property boundaries. Maybe you can get together with your neighbors to coordinate plantings in the strips between the sidewalk and road.

Also, it’s essential to avoid pesticides!!

Nurseries that specialize in native California plants include Annie’s Annuals and Perennials in Richmond and O’Donnells Nursery in Fairfax. You can find plant lists and other information on the website of the California Native Plant Society’s Marin Chapter. Or visit botanical gardens like the one above the UC Berkeley campus or the Marin Art and Garden Center.

  Chris is very
to bees!
Arrange for Bee Removal and Relocation, Not Extermination

Given how beneficial bees are, and how threatened, most people want to support them if possible. Sometimes, though, it is necessary to remove them. Honey bees and most native bees should not be exterminated; rather, you can hire a beekeeper to relocate them.

A couple years ago I hired a specialist, Chris Conrad, to remove two beehives, located in a soffit below my roof. Chris carefully vacuumed the adult bees out of the hive and into the lower section of a special box. He removed the honeycomb with its baby bee residents and attached it to a frame inserted into the upper section of the box. Then he allowed the vacuumed bees to join the young ones on the frame. He relocated the bees to his bee yard along with the honeycomb and honey they needed to re-establish the colony.  

If you want to relocate the bees elsewhere on your property, Chris will bring them back after they’ve had a few weeks to regroup in his yard.

Citizen Science: Counting Bees!

Classifying bees based on data collected by citizen scientists  
Dr. S. Hollis Woodward, an entomologist at the University of California Riverside, has proposed an approach for collecting data on native bee populations as part of the U.S. National Native Bee Monitoring Research Coordination NetworkThe project will train members of the public to look for and track wild bees.

The bee count will run through 2023, and the program encourages participants to sign up at its website or send an email to Volunteers will be given an app to upload photos and basic information about the location where the photos were taken. Scientists will identify the bees in the photos and record the information for their database.

The program is based in part on similar efforts to track bird populations. You may have heard of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, which relies on nearly 300 “citizen scientists,” volunteers who count migrating hawks and other raptors as they stream over the Marin Headlands in the fall.

Support Local Efforts to Create Public Space for Pollinators

Many of you have probably driven along Redhill Avenue and seen the new median strip that was installed recently, thanks to a generous grant from an anonymous donor. The other day I went over to take a closer look at the plantings. 

A primary goal of the project was to design a median that retains stormwater in order to decrease the amount flowing into neighboring creeks. The median strip is bisected lengthwise by a “river” of multicolored stones varying from one to three or four inches in diameter. The stone river is dotted with beautiful boulders covered with lichen and moss. An array of mostly native shrubs and grasses is artfully scattered beside the stones, with a diversity of plant texture, color, and size. Medium size trees including Japanese maples and Western Strawberry trees provide additional interest. So cool! You can find the plant list on the town of San Anselmo website. This is a great example of an attractive public space that provides essential food and nesting space for bees and other pollinators.

Heading to San Anselmo on Red Hill median


Interesting contrasts
of texture and color



Plenty of color even  in winter


Convenient landing pad for a hungry bee

That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. As always, please feel free to contact me with questions, comments and suggestions:

Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book on wildflowers or visit their website  to see more birds, flowers, and other images.

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