GREEN ISSUE: How a strange obsession blossomed into a crucial environmental issue
These concerns have a direct, if hidden, impact on Bay Area residents, whose food supply comes almost exclusively from outside urban limits. Take San Francisco, where crop production consists of $1 million worth of orchids, flower cuttings, and sprouts on two acres of land, according to a 2008 Department of Public Health report.
Missing from that equation is the honey that local bees produced. As San Francisco beekeeper Robert MacKimmie recently noted, mites hit his hives hard in 2009. "And the summer and fall were pretty brutal since we were in the third year of drought," MacKimmie said.
He hopes El Nino-related rains will be good for this year's bees: more water means more flowers for bees, which rely on nectar and pollen to sustain themselves and their developing brood.
MacKimmie doesn't have a garden and uses other people's yards to keep his bees. "The honey serves as rent," he said, noting that he only places two hives in each yard to disperse the bees in more equitably and sustainably. He points to the work of Gretchen LeBuhn, a San Francisco State University professor who started the Great Sunflower Project in 2008, as a fairly easy way to gather information about bee populations.
Reached by e-mail, LeBuhn said her project has more than 80,000 people signed up to plant sunflowers this year. "Participants create habitat by planting sunflowers and then contribute data to our project by taking 15 minutes to count the number of bees visiting their sunflower," she wrote.
"The Great Sunflower Project empowers people from preschoolers to scientists to do something about this global crisis by identifying at risk pollinator communities," LeBuhn said. "By volunteering to collect data as a group, these citizen scientists provided huge leverage on a minimal investment in science and created the first detailed international survey of pollinator health and its implications for food production.
"Getting this kind of critical scientific data at thousands of locations using traditional scientific methods would cost so much money that it is untenable," she added.
LeBuhn encourages people to submit their bee count data at www.greatsunflower.org, which recommends growing bee balm, cosmos, rosemary, tickseed, purple coneflowers, and sunflowers. Unfortunately her data shows that "at least 20 percent of the gardens are getting very poor pollinator service."
The public is encouraged to visit the UC Berkeley bee garden in May when public tours begin. But you might want to brush up on your Latin, the language experts speak when they hang out with the bees.
Coville saw a mason bee land on a lavender-flowered sage and said, "I think I just saw an Osmia on a Salvia mellifera!"
Frankie smiled at me and said, "It's bee talk."