The Buzz of Life

Whether clinging to the underside of a leaf or bumbling near flowers, insects bring color to our world and food to our plates. Bees in particular have taken the spotlight.

The Buzz of Life

From flowers of spring to harvests of fall, the cycle of life balances atop the translucent wings of bees. Living in man-made hives, hollowed trees, or even underground, countless bees from the solitary to the hive-minded are responsible for pollinating 80 percent of all flowering plants on Earth. Ranging from the yellow-faced bumble bee and the green sweat bee to the blue orchard bee and the valley carpenter bee, California alone has over 1000 different bee species.

Beyond the western honeybee which has spread across continents, native bees like the leafcutter bee have been influential upon the food system. These bees in particular are essential to the pollination of alfalfa which in turn dictates the supply of dairy and meat products.

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The Sager Family Farm aims to educate children on the importance of bees as well as encourage a love for the natural world. Photo provided by Kendal Sager.

For executive director of Sager Farms and educator Kendal Sager there’s plenty more to be learned and respected from bees. According to Sager bees are ingenious builders capable of making a home anywhere that’s available and are more diverse than one might think.

“Bees can be very, very small and look like a tiny little gnat or a fly. I think most people would write them off [and say] ‘Oh, that’s not a bee’ but there are many species of sweat bees and mining bees that are quite small,” Sager says. “On the other side of the spectrum are the carpenter bees and bumblebees which can be much larger than a honey bee and people are not sure what to think of those.”

This variation in size and color means different pollination. According to Sager bumble bees and carpenter bees are big enough to perform buzz pollination which is necessary for plants like tomatoes or blueberries. Contrastingly the western honey bee, despite feeding on the nectar from blueberries, cannot pollinate it. 

The differences between honey bees and native don’t end there, and Sager explains that their difference in lifestyle can heavily affect their needs. Honey bees can live in groups of 60,000 and travel up to five miles, making tasks and finding food easier. However, many native bees which are solitary can reach less than a tenth of that distance and have to feed and protect their home by themselves. This can reduce their chances of finding food especially within suburban environments.

“So in order to feed a solitary bee, [where] they are really only traveling one block at most, it’s really important to plant a diversity of foods,” Sager says. “That means plants that provide both nectar and pollen year round. So you can’t really get that with one plant, like ‘Oh, this is the plant to plant’ you have to create this variety of plants. For example the California Poppy will bloom in the early spring and that provides pollen but not nectar for the bees.”

Sager and her co-workers at the farm have created hands-on and engaging activities for elementary children. Their farm is also designed to provide reverse field trips and bring the bees to the children. Sager has also worked alongside engineering students from SCU to show the bees live on camera. Photos provided by Kendal Sager.

Variety becomes more pressing as the seasons change. In California the hardest season for bees is fall and in combination with arid climate, food can be scarcer than ever. Water can also become an issue, as bees especially in intensifying heat need a constant source of water to cool off and help with ingestion. Beyond food and water the materials native bees need to build their homes can be endangered as well.

Mason bees for instance use mud to build their nests and this mud is reliant upon the amount of rain California sees in spring. To help these bees Sager explains that people can buy or create native bee hotels, tubes of wood or paper, and create a healthy environment for bees. 

“All these bees are different sizes and they’re active during different seasons,” Sager says. “So it might not be active all of the time. So you really have to be aware of what is in my yard? What am I encouraging to be here?”

Accommodating and providing a space for bees is necessary especially with habitat loss and the spread of viruses. According to Sager, lawns and monoculture fields can create vast food deserts for bees. The absence of variety means a lack of constant food supply and subsequently a loss of bees. California’s central valley and its almond orchards are a prime example of this, with the plants only blooming once a year.

“So we actually have to truck in about two thirds of the honeybee colonies in the entire United States to pollinate California’s almond crop, because bees do not naturally want to live there anymore,” Sager says. “Because there’s no food for 11 months out of the year when the almonds aren’t in bloom, they’d starve in doing that. Now we’re also creating a great opportunity to spread disease nationwide very quickly because a lot of the bee population is here and then immediately redistributed.”

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According to the USDA there is roughly 1,600,000
acres of land in California devoted to almonds. Bees are transported by the truck load to pollinate these orchards. Photo by Nicholas D.

According to Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild president Roger Quinlan 25 percent of bee hives perish annually. The losses have increased since Quinlan’s early days as a beekeeper and much of these losses can be attributed to the usage of pesticides, fungicides and the varroa mite. In order to take care of hives and prevent colony collapse Quinlan explained that the best thing any starting beekeeper can do is get a mentor to learn how to be a beekeeper in their local area.

One of the best sources of information for Quinlan was UC Davis’ Master Beekeeping programs which taught the basics from the bee life cycle to common pests and how to understand the biology of a hive. According to Quinlan the needs of bees varies depending on a given state’s seasons, as such understanding the basics of bee livelihoods and the intricate ecosystem at hand is necessary.

“If I put my hives in Montana and take care of them exactly the same as I do here in California, they wouldn’t survive,” Quinlan says. “They’re not hardy enough, the hive is not insulated enough, [and it] would just be too cold for them. Then the other thing you need when you’re in a colder climate [is food], they’ll burn more calories [to] maintain a constant temperature in the hive. So you really have to make sure you leave enough honey in the hive that’s close to the brood cluster.”

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Quinlan and his wife first got into beekeeping when they met a man running an apiary. From there they began with a beehive in their backyard and later at their peak had 25 hives. Today while they’ve scaled down they’ve taken to teaching others bout bees and still find themselves packing several pounds of honey. Photo provided by Roger Quinlan.

In California what bees need most aside from food is a consistent water source. Quinlan and the Beekeeper Guild have held lessons to teach people how to build their own watering system that accounts for the bees’ needs and keeps them out of pools. Quinlan explains that it’s especially important to establish a safe watering hole for bees because that information is passed down every generation. 

“The great part about having a connected world is all of those resources are available to the hobbyist beekeeper,” Quinlan says. “So I would say the beekeepers of today are a lot better informed of what’s going on in beekeeping than they were a generation ago. I’m very excited about that [and] I think everyone understands the plight of the honeybee is under some pressure.”

One place giving bees a haven amidst concrete and empty lawns is SCU’S Forge Garden. The garden houses eight honey bee hives and provides them with ample food year round through their sustainable garden. According to the Forge Garden’s sustainable food systems program manager Becca Nelson sustainable gardens and agriculture aren’t just about reducing fertilizer and pesticide usage. For Nelson the main point is about creating resilient and biodiverse ecosystems that are self-sufficient so that all life can prosper.

To instill this message Nelson has had their beekeeper come during the summers to teach and give interns demonstrations over the summer. Nelson hopes to bring these lessons back to the Forge soon and have the students work together as a community and see how complex and interesting bee hives can be.

“Most of the crops we grow are flowering plants and the fruit from those plants is what we harvest and eat,” Nelson says. “All those flowers need to be pollinated and bees are a huge part of that. We are lucky we have such a biodiverse space here, a little ecosystem that also attracts native pollinators.”

In order to maintain food supply for pollinators Nelson makes sure to rotate crops and always have flowers that match the season. Urban gardens like the Forge are also important for other purposes like health and easier transportation. For Nelson the main appeal is that they can serve as a gathering place for the community to learn and give back to nature. The rewards can be endless and Nelson believes that the connections fostered there reflect the many colorful flowers and fruits flourishing through their time and efforts. 

“No one is untouched by climate change,” Nelson says. “In the same way that I believe that no one is untouched by a globalized [and] unsustainable food system. It affects every one of us and there is something important in learning where you stand in relation to global issues and what we can advocate for in regards to change. Really think about not just investing in each other but investing in the future of our communities and our world.”

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