California Group Works To Boost Bee Habitat

Jul 27, 2015

Honey bees around the world are facing serious challenges. In recent years, annual hive losses have risen to 50 percent or more. Now, a California non-profit is working to help farmers and other landowners create habitat for bees and other pollinators.

Credit Wikimedia Commons

The past decade or so has been a tough time to be a bee …
Neal Williams: “Our managed honeybee populations continue to face a variety of threats from diseases and from other elements within the management of our agricultural and urban systems.”

Neal Williams is a professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis. He says parasites and pesticides play a role as well.
Neal Williams: “But also really strongly the availability of adequate nutrition throughout different times of the year, which is, of course, provided by flowering plants.”

In short, there are a lot fewer flowers around for bees to take nectar from to make honey and feed themselves. Professor Williams says there are a lot of reasons for that.
Neal Williams: “Some of those are driven by different management tactics that we use in agriculture, changes in horticultural varieties of the kinds of plants that we grow in our gardens.”

For example, Williams says, in many agricultural areas, the weed-filled borders between fields that provide wild plants for bees to forage on are routinely tilled under or sprayed with herbicides. And while some crops such as fruits and nuts produce abundant flowers, they only last for a few weeks.
Mary Byrne says humans should definitely care about what happens to bees.
Mary Byrne: “One out of every three bites of food is based on a pollinator-dependent crop.”

Byrne is the plant ecologist with the San Francisco-based Pollinator Partnership.

Mary Byrne: “There’s about 150 pollinator-dependent crops in the US alone. So our entire food system is based around pollinators.”

Byrne’s group has recruited about 200 farmers and other rural landowners in California and North Carolina who have pledged to dedicate at least a quarter acre to planting a mix of wildflowers. These small plots are designed to give bees a reliable place to forage for pollen and nectar over the course of the season. Bryne says the volunteers were given one of several mixes of seeds designed to provide optimum pollinator forage. They were also asked to commit to keeping the fields intact for at least three years.
Mary Byrne: “This is in large part a research program. And we really want to find out which of our several mixes is working best for honey bees.”

Bryne says it’s early, but so far, the signs are promising.
Mary Byrne: “For the most part, the folks that did receive seed, their seed did germinate and plants did start growing. So it seems that the fundamentals of the program are working well.”

Kris Koolman is one of those folks. She runs Bee & Bounty Honey Company, a fledgling beekeeping operation near San Luis Obispo, California. She says her location is ideal for bee-feeding habitat.
Kris Koolman: “We have ten acres, and we’re kind of an island among hundreds if not thousands of acres of vineyards where we live.”

Koolman says wine grapes don’t offer much benefit to bees, so her acreage could be a real pollinator oasis. She’s been slowly adding bee-friendly plants to her property, but seed is expensive. So she’s thrilled to be part of the Bee Buffer Project. But there’s been an unforeseen complication.
Kris Koolman: “Because of the drought, it’s been really a struggle to get the seeds going this year.”

Koolman says the lack of rain has meant that even the flowers that germinate and bloom aren’t doing the bees much good.
Kris Koolman: “You might see a flower but it’s dry. And they’re not able to make honey when there’s no nectar inside the flower. So it’s been a struggle with the drought.”

Still, Koolman remains optimistic that her bee habitat will thrive, once the rains return.
The Pollinator Partnership – and the North Carolina-based Burt’s Bees Greater Good Foundation, which is co-sponsoring the Bee Buffer Project – hope to eventually expand the program nationwide.
The foundation has set a goal of 10-thousand acres of new bee forage habitat by 20-20.

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