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Taking care of our native bees’ needs

Volunteers and staff help create and maintain diverse plantings throughout the arboretum and Public Garden that support our native bee pollinators.

California is home to 1600+ native bee species that range in size from less than a quarter inch long to more than an inch and a half. What may come as a surprise to many is that none of them make honey or live in hives like the ubiquitous European honey bee. However, they are all critical to the future of our state’s environmental health, the pollination of our food as well as the reproduction of plants in California’s natural areas.

“Honey bees get all the attention,” says Ellen Zagory, director of public horticulture for the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden. “We love them and want to make sure their populations are healthy for a variety of reasons. The problem is that many people assume honey bees are similar to every other species of bee, but native bees’ needs are quite different.

yellow-faced bumble bee and Valley violets

Valley violet California lilac, Ceanothus ‘Valley Violet’ is an excellent source of pollen for early spring bees like the yellow-faced bumble bee (Bombus vosnesenskii). This hard-working, more common species of native bee moves slowly among the flowers and is easy to identify from its bright yellow facial hair. Female bumble bees’ hind legs widen to form baskets that they fill with bright-colored, moistened pollen pellets.

“As their natural habitat shrinks, there’s a few things we as gardeners can do to provide for them and encourage them to visit our yards.”

Zagory encourages gardeners everywhere to support the dynamic roles native bees play in our environment by creating gardens that help sustain them. Here are three easy things that you can do to provide for a variety of native bee species in your environment.

long-horned bee and blanket flowers

Blanket flower (Gaillardia × grandiflora) is a colorful daisy-type flower popular with a number of native bees. In the Central Valley, these flowers attract long-horned bees (Melissodes spp.) which you can easily observe collecting nectar and pollen from the showy orange and yellow flowers. This group of medium to large-body bees get their names from the long antennae of the males who you can see jostling for female attention by day. The females actually have short antennae and can be identified by their pollen-packed legs.

1. Improve your plant diversity

The incredible diversity of California’s 1,600 species of native bees means we need a diversity of plants to feed them; certain types of bees are drawn to certain types of plants. Thoughtful plant choices can produce a sequence of bloom from winter through fall – feeding bees in all seasons. The Urban California Native Bee Survey demonstrated that “. . . with the right bee plants, one small urban garden can attract forty to fifty species of native bees.”

If the thought of figuring out which plants are the best overwhelms you, you are not alone. Check out the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden’s brochure “10 Bees and 10 Plants They Love” for a brief list of plants that attract native bees and what type of native bees you may attract. Shop our one-acre nursery for an incredible selection of bee and pollinator friendly plants at our upcoming plant sales!

Leafcutter Bee and Western redbud

Western redbud, Cercis occidentalis is native to the foothills of California’s valley floor. It blooms in spring with magenta-pink, pea-shaped flowers that are popular with a variety of native bees. If you see curious scoops on the edges of its leaves, you are doing a good job encouraging diversity in your pollinator garden because that means native leafcutter bees (Megachile spp.) live close by. Leafcutters nest in wood and use redbud leaves to create walls between their eggs.

2. Prepare mulch-free zones

Seventy percent of California’s native female bees nest in the ground. So, even though mulching is a gardener’s go-to solution for preventing weed seed germination, preserving soil moisture and providing aesthetic appeal, it also eliminates native bee nesting habitat. Instead of mulching everywhere, allow some areas in your landscape to remain mulch-free so native female bees can find a place to create a nest stocked with nectar and pollen for her brood. If you have one, south-facing slopes are great areas to invite them to cohabitate. Do not worry about large groups of bees moving in – native bees are solitary and do not live in hives.

3. Provide wood cavities

The other 30% of California native bee species nest in wood cavities. To create homes for them, consider adding sculptural pieces of chemical-free wood to your garden or installing a bee condo! Not only can these condos welcome other species of bees into your landscape, they may serve as an attractive alternative to bees who might otherwise burrow into the wood of your home!

Even though we may consider our urban and suburban gardens as different from areas designated to conserve habitat, the choices we make as gardeners affect the health of our environment. Simple daily choices can make us part of the solution to providing for the unique needs of California’s native bees.

Please visit the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden gardens and collections for inspiration, and take home an amazing palette of pollinator-friendly plants perfect for our region at our upcoming plant sales.

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