I have reported a couple of stories now on the mysterious die off of honeybees that has hit beekeepers in at least 35 states. It's a threat to all of us because bees are responsible for pollinating the crops that provide more than 30 per cent of our food.
One of the things that struck me about this story is what a big business beekeeping has become. When the almond crop is getting ready to bloom in California's central valley huge transport trucks loaded with bees travel the highways and farm roads carrying hives into the orchards. The farmers pay the beekeepers thousands of dollars to rent their bees. Without the bees there would be no almond crop. The same for apples and pears, most berries and melons, squash and pumpkins. The list goes on to include much of what makes our diet healthy and interesting.
But there was a time, decades ago, that farmers didn't have to depend on beekeepers to bring in bees to pollinate the crops. Back then there were enough wild pollinators around to do the job for free. Two things have happened since then. Agriculture has grown to a larger and larger scale and wild pollinators, including butterflies, bats and hummingbirds as well as bees, have been disappearing.
There are hundreds of species of wild native bees in America but we have come to depend on just one domesticated species, the non-native European honeybee, raised by beekeepers, to produce much of our food.
So I was encouraged when I visited a farm near Davis, California where the farmer had set aside a strip of land to create a habitat for native wild bees. The strip was filled with an array of colorful blossoms and as soon as I stepped into it I could hear the buzzing. Most obvious were the big black bumblebees. They have been declining for years but in this little strip they were plentiful.
My guide was Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist with the College of Natural Resources at the University of California, Berkeley. She's studying ways to encourage the return of native wild pollinators. She's finding that if farmers provide the right habitat wild bees can thrive, perhaps enough to pollinate nearby crops. At the very least, she says, helping wild bees make a comeback provides an insurance policy of sorts against the kind of crisis that now seems to be facing commercial beekeepers.
City dwellers can help wild bees too. The Urban Bee Project at the University of California, Berkeley has a guide to planting gardens that cater to wild bees.
And they assure us that most wild bees don't even sting!