GREEN ISSUE: How a strange obsession blossomed into a crucial environmental issue
When he was writing Bumblebee Economics, which explores biological energy costs and payoffs using bumblebees as the model, Heinrich studied Bombus terricola, the yellow-banded bumble bee that was plentiful around Maine bogs in the 1970s.
"I could see dozens all at once. But since then, for years I didn't see any at all, and since then I've only seen a few," Heinrich said "Nobody figured out what happened."
Gordon Frankie, professor and research entomologist at UC Berkeley, told me he's happy to see the increased interest in urban bees. "People have begun to recognize that bees have a major role to play in agriculture," Frankie said, as he and Rollin Coville, who has a doctorate in entomology from UC Berkeley and a passion for photographing insects, showed me around the experimental urban bee garden they created in 2003 at the edge of a field in downtown Berkeley.
"Bees love blues, purples, pinks, and yellows," Frankie said, explaining that bees can see ultraviolet hues but not red flowers as we observe bees busily foraging on a blue lilac bush.
He also said bees love hanging out in open meadows where the sun shines and where they can see the flowers. "In the forest is no damn good if you're a bee," he said.
In July 2009, Frankie, Coville, and Thorp published an article in California Agriculture that outlined the results of bee surveys in gardens in Berkeley, La Canada Flintridge, Sacramento, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Ukiah.
"Evidence is mounting that pollinators of crop and wild land plants are declining worldwide," they wrote. "Results indicate that many types of residential gardens provide floral and nesting resources for the reproduction and survival of bees, especially a diversity of native bees. Habitat gardening for bees — using targeted ornamental plants — can predictably increase bee diversity and abundance and provide clear pollinator benefits."
Frankie and Coville also helped produce a 2010 native bee calendar that features Coville's photographs of bumble, squash, mason, carpenter, leafcutter, mining, wool carder, cuckoo, and ultragreen sweat bees, plus tips on how to attract these pin-ups by planting a variety of bee-friendly plants, avoiding pesticides, and refraining from over-mulching.
Researchers have observed almost 50 species of native bees at UC Berkeley's bee garden, out of 85 species recorded citywide. UC Berkeley's urban bee gardens' Web site, (www.nature.Berkeley.edu/urbanbeegardens) notes that bees have preferences for gardens as well as flowers.
"Gardens with 10 or more species of attractive plants attracted the largest number of bees," the Web site states, cautioning people against hanging around plants too long. "If an observer spends too long in one place hovering over the same patch of flowers, the bees will gradually begin to move on to other flowers where they won't be bothered. To facilitate counts, it is sometimes a good idea to create little paths through the garden so that all patches are accessible to the observer."
Here in California, high real estate prices have led to the increased paving over of bee habitat. And bees have come under additional stress in the wake of a 2006 E. coli outbreak that sickened more than 200 individuals and resulted in at least three deaths on the Central Coast. Growers have since been pressured to eliminate hedgerows, wetlands, habitat, and wildlife around farms.
But as a February 2010 Nature Conservancy report on food safety and ecological health notes, "certain on-farm food safety requirements may do little to protect human health and might in fact damage the natural resources on which agriculture and all life depend."