Where are the bees?

Mary Beth is a longtime volunteer at the Mission Blue Nursery, joining in 2011 which was early in the nursery's development. She has been a regular and dedicated steward, making the Mountain and the Mission Blue Nursery a part of her life. Here she reflects on native bees and what she's noticed lately, both on the Mountain and in her own native garden in San Mateo. Mary Beth will be giving a talk about bees and your garden at our next native plant sale at Mission Blue Nursery on May 14th - so don't miss that!

My love of San Bruno Mountain began with my love of native plants, however I also have a fondness for native bees. The familiar honey bee is what most people think of when they hear the word “bee”. Honey bees are not native - they were introduced to the Americas by Europeans and are now the mainstay of the pollination industry. It's common knowledge that the world's population of honey bees is in trouble. A gardener who lives at the base of the Mountain asked me what Mountain Watch was doing to help the bees. His fruit trees were not being pollinated since the number of bees had gone down significantly during the last few years. He, of course, meant honey bees. But native bees, like bumblebees, are also excellent pollinators and are in much more danger.

I have been going up on the Mountain for several years, nearly every Saturday, to help restore native plants. In prime bee season, which is late Winter through early Fall, I usually see only one or two bumblebees during the couple of hours that I weed or plant on the Mountain. Unfortunately, there should be many different types of native bees and many more individuals of each type. So where are the native bees?

The reason that I know that native bees are missing is my San Mateo garden, which is planted with California natives and is humming with native bees of all sorts - and honey bees. Bees are attracted to flowers that produce nectar and pollen, especially in Spring when the bees are laying their eggs. The bees are searching for pollen to pack in with their eggs to feed the growing bee-to-be, and for nectar, an important food and energy source for adults so they have the energy to collect even more pollen. Native plants evolved with native bees in a mutually beneficial system - bees pollinate the plants which provide them with food, and bee pollination then ensures seeds and new plants with more nectar and pollen for the next year.

Mary Beth's garden - goldfields, baby blue eyes

Mary Beth's garden - goldfields, baby blue eyes

California poppies, phacelia, clarkia

California poppies, phacelia, clarkia

What my garden has that the Mountain does not have these days is an abundance of Spring annuals. The Mountain was used for grazing dairy cattle in the 1800s. The seeds that came in the guts of the cattle grew into the non-native pasture grasses and weeds we live with now -  like wild oat grass, Italian thistle, and Italian rye grass that show up as the "green" that starts appearing when the first rains come. However, the dense growth of these invasives makes it difficult for native annuals to compete, preventing their reseeding and successful growth. Native annuals were adapted to grow alongside native bunch grasses that grow in clumps, leaving open ground that would be available for the germination of seeds and growth of new annuals. Native annuals are important for native bees.

intern Tara Kai (2015) preparing annual beds for seeding

intern Tara Kai (2015) preparing annual beds for seeding

So what is Mountain Watch doing to help the bees? In addition to our ongoing habitat restoration work where we outplant native grasses and perennials, the Mission Blue Nursery also started planting annual beds several years ago to be used in restoration projects. As you can imagine annual wildflowers are very popular with all types of bees (and sadly, the seeds of the annual lupines are popular with ground squirrels which visit the nursery). Volunteers then carefully collect the annual seeds to be either scattered on the Mountain, replanted in our annual beds, or planted in flats from which chunks of seedlings can be outplanted out at the same time we're planting native grasses and perennials.

The Mission Blue Nursery offered several annuals from the Mountain at our February native plant sale:  Farewell-to-Spring (Clarkia rubicunda), Annual Lupine (Lupinus bicolor), Owlʼs Clover (Castilleja exserta), and Fiesta Flower (Pholistoma auritum). You can help the bees in your yard by planting as many native annuals and flowering perennials as you can. You will see the difference in your vegetable and fruit set as well.

male long-horned bees sleeping on

Ariel Cherbowsky heads up our Stewardship Programs. Check out our Upcoming Events listings for opportunities to be involved in this great work that's being done on the Mountain and for the Mountain!

These male native bees (Mellisodes sp.) hover around sunflower-like plants all day to reserve them for their females against other pollen collecting insects! The males then sleep in a pile on one of the treasured flowers like this seaside daisy. The females look like they are wearing leg warmers.