To Bee or Not to Bee

Twenty-thousand bee species keep busy around the globe. Some 3,600 have settled in the US with 1,600, varying in size, shape and color, calling California home. However most of our locals are honey bees, now known as western honey bees (Apis mellifera). It is they who have taken over the pollination business. Their advantage: these social workaholics are the most sophisticated communicators of all invertebrates. They not only direct others within their sphere to the finest foraging for the most appealing pollen and nectar but also indicate not only what to look for but what it smells like. These hive dwellers are fierce competitors with others who perform the same function including bats, birds, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles and small mammals as well as other bee species. Western honeybees get good press. Their service as pollinators and the honey they produce have a value of around $700 million according to the US Department or Agriculture (USDA). 

Photo by John Weare

There is a concern. The western honeybee, though not exactly a newbie, is not a native having arrived either from Europe or Africa around the 1600s. The complicating issue is their negative impact on native bee pollinators. The native bees live solitary lives, nesting in the ground or various other shelter spots, and therefore lack the possibility of an internet of information to lead them to best finite food sources. But native bees often have better pollination techniques. One example: the bumble bee’s buzz pollination process that vibrates its flower. This shimmy produces results shifting more pollen grains than the honeybee’s approach. The greater the number of pollen grains that get moved from the male to the female parts of the flower is the key to the quality of the final product. For produce the more the better. 


A bee’s life is short, a few weeks for most. The exception: the queen bees whose job it is to produce eggs. A queen bumble bee can live a year and a queen honey bee up to four years. Male bees do a bit of work but are meant mostly for mating. The females take on the main chores. It is the females who are equipped with working stingers, a feature of an egg laying device, used when threatened to defend themselves. A female honeybee can indeed sting an insect many times, but if the stinger is caught, as in human skin, the bee will die. The more aggressive Africanized honeybees, not yet colonized in our area, will mount an attack on and chase away anyone seen as an invader.


The real threat for California’s wild bee species is a cumulation of many factors: loss of habitat, toxic pesticides, invasive insects, and the ever present threat of climate change that affects the future of all bees. The honeybees face the same issues and worse: they have been hit by the deadly colony collapse disorder. The USDA estimates that from April 2019-2020 beekeepers lost more than 40 percent of their honeybees.


Something to do: Specifically, plant manzanita, our local variety, for native bees and while you are at it build a garden of flowering plants to offer all pollinators a safe place on the planet.