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The Headbonker’s Ball

Native bees are thriving in some surprising places in California

by Matt Jenkins

Published in the March/April 2008 issue of Orion magazine




AMID THE 150-YEAR-OLD GRAVESTONES of a Gold Rush–era cemetery in downtown Sacramento, Jaime Pawelek spends at least one day a month searching for roving spirits. They are tiny and fiendishly quick, and they are not always on their best behavior.

Take the diminutive headbonker. Properly known as Anthidium maculosum, the headbonker is a California-native bee species. The males are fiercely territorial and unafraid to take on intruders bigger than themselves. “I saw one run off a honeybee earlier,” says Pawelek, a University of California, Berkeley, undergrad whose freckles have been drawn out by the blazing August sun. “It knocked right into a honeybee and chased it out.”

Headbonkers have, on occasion, even chased Pawelek and other researchers: the bee earned its epithet after one male (which, unlike the females, don’t sting) repeatedly bounced itself off the forehead of one of Pawelek’s fellow students. But viewed close while gently held between two fingers, headbonkers are striking creatures, tiny knots of concentrated metabolism. Their eyes reveal themselves to be entrancing pools of green, prismatic fire.

Such are the hazards and rewards of an effort led by Pawelek’s boss, a UC Berkeley entomologist named Gordon Frankie, to better understand and conserve California’s native bee species. A bearded, inveterate wearer of flowery Hawaiian shirts, Frankie ticks off the names of the eye-popping, Mardi Gras–worthy parade of characters that his team is studying: headbonkers; Agapostemon texanus, whose females are metallic green and have a stately mien; Xylocopa varipuncta, whose males look uncannily like thimble-sized teddy bears (merely describing them brings Pawelek to the brink of swooning); and Melissodes, a genus whose males have a risqué penchant for group sleepovers in cosmos flowers, to name just a few. From afar, it’s difficult to differentiate between the dozens and dozens of species buzzing around the streets and buildings of northern California’s cities. Up close, however, each species reveals its own surprising attributes.

In fact, much of Frankie’s work focuses on bees not in rural areas but in cities. As urban and agricultural development in California has obliterated the native bees’ natural habitat, many of the state’s more than fifteen hundred species of natives have adapted and persevered in cities. Urban environments have proved biologically richer than the vast expanses of rural, agricultural land in California. “It’s like a reservoir of genetic material in these urban environments,” Frankie says. “All [agricultural areas] have is dirt and the crop that farmers want, and then they bring in bees in a box,” creating what he calls “a monoculture in bees.”

In the aftermath of Colony Collapse Disorder and the subsequent disappearance of imported European honeybees from their hives, native bees offer another possible means of crop pollination. But Frankie is concerned less with the bees’ agronomic utility than with buttressing their foothold in California’s cities and with reconnecting the state’s human urban dwellers with the native bees that have persisted, largely unnoticed, in their midst. He is laboring to convince gardeners to see their yards as something more than a bunch of flowers and to repurpose their gardens as food sources for the animals that carry out the ecologically vital process of pollination in the city. That effort feels something like the campaign to create World War II victory gardens—but this time in the service of conserving biodiversity.

FOR YEARS, FRANKIE—who has been researching bees at various sites throughout California since the mid-1970s—would return from the field to his office at Berkeley without giving much thought to urban bees. “But I used to walk around the neighborhoods here, and I noticed that something was going on,” he says. After a colleague brought him a sample of bees from a nearby park, Frankie realized that there was tremendous diversity in the urban environment. “That’s when we started to see that we’d been missing something here all these years.”

That was the start of the Urban Bee Project. Frankie and his colleagues ultimately identified eighty-two species of bees in the Berkeley area, and Frankie began thinking about how to bolster habitat and food sources for bees in the city. In 2003, he started an “experimental bee garden” in an empty lot a block from the university. The garden now stands prominent in a neighborhood of three- and four-story apartment buildings that, on a sunny day, has all the blazing intensity of a car dealer’s lot.

“When we started this garden, it was bare dirt,” Frankie says. “We walked in here with dwarf sunflowers and cosmos, and the bees followed us in.” Since then, Frankie and company have been using the garden as a sort of test vehicle to determine which plants—and what mixes of flowers—are most attractive to native bees.

“We have a really good idea of what works now,” Frankie says. Today, the experimental bee garden has a smattering of non-native plants that the bees like, but the team has discovered that native bees are six times more likely to visit the native plants with which they have evolved.

Salvias, or sages, seem to be manna for native bees, but the list of sure bets runs long and includes California poppies, buckwheats, seaside daisies, goldenrod, coreopsis, chamomile, and palo verde trees, among many others.

“The relationship between the bee and the plant is specific enough that you can say, ‘Poppies are going to attract these kinds of bees; salvias are going to attract these kinds of bees,’” Frankie says. “That’s one of the more exciting findings that’s emerged from our studies—that we can actually predict what you can find in your garden, if you plant the right plants.”

ONE OF THE MOST RECENT ENLISTEES in the effort to make more room for bees is Sharon Patrician, a regal sixty-six year old who tends a section of the Sacramento cemetery called Hamilton Square. Dressed in capris, a floppy straw hat, and a bright yellow shirt, Patrician is an able raconteur of the graveyard’s stories: about how, in the 1800s, the graves had to be fenced to keep out the cattle that would graze here; about the enterprising individual who excavated cadavers and parceled them out for science—only to eventually be laid to rest here himself; and about the young widow of a Gold Rush financier who, as Patrician puts it, had him “installed” in grand fashion before going on to burn through his amassed millions. “We know,” Patrician says, with her eyebrows shrewdly arched, “where the bodies are buried around here.”

As she works in the cemetery garden, Patrician occasionally crosses paths with visitors who clearly have been drawn by the place’s macabre allure. But one day two summers ago, she happened upon a bearded man in wraparound sunglasses who was carrying an insect net and wearing a Hawaiian shirt. “When he told me what he was doing, I was just thrilled,” she says.

Frankie convinced Patrician to let his research assistants, like Pawelek, use the cemetery as a place to do bee counts and determine how frequently various bees visit promising varieties of “target plants.” He also helped Patrician make the garden a place where bees can get more of what they need to thrive.

For a native California bee that has finally emerged from hibernation, a typical garden can be as perilous as Dante’s nine circles of hell. Synthetic pesticides can be lethal to bees, and classic garden staples can mean starvation. “Roses,” Frankie grouses, “are horrible”: the petals of domesticated rose blossoms are bunched too tightly to allow the bees to get to nectar and pollen.

The professor has turned into a sort of Johnny Appleseed of bee-friendly plants. He frequently looks for promising candidates in local nurseries and rustles up seed in the wild to grow out for gardens. At least once a month, he visits each of seven study sites spread throughout the state, including a four-day road trip to cities along the central and southern California coast, and distributes plants to gardeners along the way.

Frankie encourages gardeners to plant varieties of flowers that will bloom successively throughout the entire year. “We have seasons of bees,” he says, noting that by watering and by cutting the dead heads off flowers, gardeners can push their plants through consecutive seasons to provide various bee species with a continuous source of food. “If [gardeners] do their gardening correctly, you can get extended flowering out of a lot of the species that you couldn’t get in the wild,” Frankie says, pointing up the example of encelia, a bush sunflower. “It usually only flowers in April, and then it conks out. But if you water it and tend to it, the damn thing will flower all year.”

In the Hamilton Square garden in Sacramento, Sharon Patrician is trying out a desert willow that Frankie brought her. “This has been a new learning experience for me,” she says. “All the plants, I’m familiar with. It’s just that I didn’t think about growing them as a particular food source.”

MATCHING FLOWERS to the bees’ dietary requirements is just one trick. Another is providing bees with suitable places to nest. Unlike hive-dwelling honeybees, most natives nest alone in the ground—and need patches of bare ground in which to dig their nests. It’s almost impossible for bees to nest in turf, but Frankie reserves a special vitriol for what he calls mulch madness: “Bees cannot dig through mulch,” he says, “and they can’t dig through what we call Black Plastic Insanity”—plastic sheet mulch. “These mulchers,” he says with exasperation, “are getting crazy.” 

Patrician admits to being a recovering mulcher herself.

(“I used to mulch four inches deep,” she grimaces.) But she has since allowed the grassy paths between the graves to become the turf equivalent of a threadbare rug, with large patches of bare dirt. “For the bees who nest underground, the paths are perfect because they don’t get disturbed—we’re not ripping up the pathways or anything like that,” she says. “And in the spring, you’ll see these little tiny holes in hard ground” where newly emerged bees have crawled out to the world above. 

After a female bee emerges from the nest in which she was born, she typically lives only three to four weeks. She will mate almost immediately. “The males emerge first,” says Robbin Thorp, a colleague of Frankie’s who is an emeritus professor at the University of California, Davis, “so they’re Johnny-on-the-spot when the females come out.”

Once they’ve mated, Thorp says, females will “forage a little bit, just to get some flight fuel—some nectar—in their system, and then they’ll start digging a nest.” Below ground, a bee will hollow out individual brood cells for each egg that she’ll lay. Then she will leave the nest again to collect the food she’ll use to nourish her offspring. The bee travels from flower to flower gathering both pollen and nectar, and pollinating plants as she goes. The sugary nectar provides energy, while pollen provides concentrated amounts of vitamins, protein, fat, and oils. “It’s the staff of life for the developing larva,” says Frankie.

Inside the nest, the mother fashions what Frankie variously refers to as “pollen loaves” or “bee bread.” She packs one into each brood cell, lays an egg on top of the loaf, and then seals off the chamber and moves to the next brood cell. Once the wormlike larvae hatch, they spend up to a year underground feeding on their pollen loaves. As winter nears, they slow their metabolisms and “hold over” in a pre-pupal stage. Then, as the weather warms again, they pupate, transform into fully formed bees, and emerge into the world aboveground, to begin the cycle anew.

FRANKIE AND HIS COLLEAGUES have launched a website with recommendations for bee-friendly plants and garden practices (http://nature.berkeley.edu/urbanbeegardens), and they’re also working on a book, due out in 2009. Several Bay Area nurseries have put together their own menus of bee-friendly plants, and gardeners like Patrician are spreading the word to visitors as well. “I’ve begun to incorporate into my spiel that people really should be planting things that benefit the urban wildlife,” she says. “If the insects disappear, we’re in a big heap of trouble.”

Still, she says that there’s an uneasy tension—even among members of the board of directors that oversees the cemetery—between the impulses to maintain a garden that’s good for bees and a garden that looks like what people expect. “They’ve been at me to come in here and sod all these paths,” Patrician sighs. “And I say, ‘No way. Over my dead body. I will not . . . sod . . . these . . . paths.’”

Back at the experimental bee garden in Berkeley, Frankie concedes that the study of urban bees is still very much in its infancy. In the past, they “collected bees at study sites, made a list, and that was it,” he says. “There’s a small [body of] literature on diversity already, but no one is yet starting to make any sense out of it.”

He also admits that the effort to popularize bee-friendly gardening can be at odds with the 1970s-era Sunset magazine vision of California, which still holds some currency among many of the state’s residents. Partway through an abbreviated rant, Frankie’s ire settles on the “low-level gardening culture” in the city of Paso Robles. “All they’ve got there,” he says, “is dried-up lawns and privet hedge”— a plant he describes as “an awful thing you put in the ground when nothing else will grow.”

As Frankie talks, he’s occasionally interrupted by Pawelek’s exclamations as various bees fly in and out of the garden (“Ooh! Baby halictid!”). That’s the sort of engagement that Frankie hopes more people will develop as they tend to their own gardens at home. “If somebody puts a name on a bee and tells you a little bit about it, I think there’s a lot of aesthetic pleasure in knowing that you’ve got a bee, and you can see it in your garden,” he says. “People want to have a story that goes with it, and it’s our work to tell people what these stories are.”

Frankie and his team have taken their bee-awareness program into local elementary schools, giving presentations in which the highlight is invariably the point at which kids learn how to identify male bees and catch them with their hands. Watching Frankie talk about how stingers work, it’s easy to imagine him standing before a gaggle of eight year olds. “The stinger is an egg-laying apparatus,” he says. “If [the females] wanna lay an egg”—he makes a motion like he’s turning an imaginary knob on the side of his head—“they turn on the egg-laying thing. If they wanna send down venom to sting somebody”—he dials the other way—“venom!”

When Frankie makes his four-day trips down the coast and back, he frequently cruises neighborhoods to look for promising gardens. In the town of Soquel, near Santa Cruz, he happened across Kimberly Carter Gamble, who, acting on intuition alone, had assembled a menu of plants in her home garden that was perfect for native bees. “I first saw this garden on a foggy day, and I knew it was gonna be good,” Frankie says. “We finally had a chance to go out on a good day, and it was just dynamite. It was just abuzz with bees.”

Gamble says both the flowers and the bees have proven to be star garden-party attractions. “I had this tower-of-jewels this year—it grows in a very blatant spiral as it opens up—and I think there were sixty bees at a time,” she says. “It was a particularly fun one, because the bees were so laden with the pollen that they could hardly take off.” This year, on Frankie’s recommendation, Gamble is going to work linaria, coreopsis, and bidens into her garden.

And so goes Frankie’s quest: braving the perils of the headbonkers and reeling in converts to the belief that a garden can serve a bigger purpose than simply prettying a yard. Frankie says that every time he makes a visit to someone’s garden, he learns more about how to see the world as a bee does.

“You know when you walk into a restaurant and you can tell within a matter of seconds whether or not it’s any good?” he says. “Same thing with a garden: you walk in and you say, ‘Hup! They got this, they got that. Let’s stay a while. Let’s see what happens.’”

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Matt Jenkins is a freelance writer and contributing editor to High Country News. He writes from Berkeley, California. He is the editor of A People's History of Wilderness.

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