Henry David Thoreau once famously said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” and environmentalists to this day invoke the declaration as an article of faith.
But is it true?
The celebrated 19th century hermit-philosopher himself might have second thoughts had he been able to join my colleague Shahla Farzan and I on a recent stroll with Robbin Thorp.
Thorp is a retired UC Davis entomology professor who has studied native California bees for nearly 50 years. We met on the agricultural west side of campus at the Haagen-Daz Honey Bee Haven. This is not an ice cream parlor but a demonstration garden designed to attract and feed honeybees.
There’s no “wildness” in this flowery patch of bee habitat, with its tidy plantings, curvy walkway and ceramic artwork. The “haven” has the University Airport on one side and the Swine Teaching and Research Center on the other. If the full-throttle takeoffs don’t rattle you, the pigs’ bloodcurdling squeals at mealtime surely will.
UC Davis planted the garden in 2009 to promote awareness of the worldwide decline of honeybees and their importance as pollinators of crops and urban plants. But it’s not just honeybees foraging the garden’s cape mallows, the coneflowers, dwarf yarrow, lavender and other nectar treats.
Thorp, who has been monitoring the 2 ½ acre plot for the past 3 years, from open field to planted garden, has found “pretty impressive diversity” – more than 75 species of bees, mostly natives. They include leafcutter bees, sweat bees, cuckoo bees, sunflower bees and carpenter bees – like the one Thorp plucked off a flower. Holding the bee’s legs gingerly between his thumb and index finger, Thorp identified it as a male. “Boys don’t sting,” he assured us.
Thorp’s monitoring data at the Haven and elsewhere is part of a growing body of evidence indicating that highly disturbed urban areas can support a high diversity of native bee species.
The new work is spurred by the plight of the honeybees, which are not native to California. As Shahla Farzan detailed in her companion column, these pollinators appear to be in terminal decline, presenting a serious threat to global food security. Most of our crops rely on pollinators to reproduce – including those used as ingredients in ice creams and sorbets. Häagen-Dazs, which is based in Tulare, Calif., is a large financial contributor to honey bee research at UC Davis.
Native bees, which do not live in hives or produce honey, have been historically viewed as inefficient and unreliable pollinators. But with the right habitat, scientists say they can be just as effective in crop reproduction.
The wildlands that sustain native bees are disappearing, so Thorp and other researchers are exploring residential and community gardens areas as potential bee refuges.
A survey of urban gardens that UC Berkeley entomology professor Gordon Frankie began seven years ago in the Bay Area now includes nine California cities, from Ukiah to Riverside. UC researchers regularly visit the sites to record the number and types of bees. Learn more about urban garden project here.
One of those spots is the Old City Cemetery in Sacramento, where volunteers not long ago turned a barren, rundown acre of gravesites into a native plants demonstration garden. Now, by Frankie’s count, more than 85 species of local bees flit about the tilted headstones, which date back to the Gold Rush.
The ongoing research has shown that bees are more strongly attracted to gardens with a greater diversity of bee-friendly flowers. Frankie and Thorp used their findings to write a 300-page field guide, “Native Bees and their Flowers in Urban California,” scheduled for publication later this year.
Thorp says bees would be a lot better off if more backyards, cemeteries, golf courses and other urban and suburban landscapes included more pesticide-free, bee-friendly gardens.
Thoreau’s “wildness” is a pretty high bar these days for preservation. Think of all the roads, dams, cars, planes and people that have been added to the Earth since Thoreau inked those words 150 years ago. And with human-caused climate change, do truly wild places still exist?
Conservation biologists say long-term preservation of species will require far more habitat than available in national parks, wildlife refuges and other wildlands. What’s needed, they argue, is more urban habitat – tended by us.
For more on native pollinators, visit Shahla Farzan’s companion column Polli-nation: Why Native Pollinators Matter.
Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven: http://beebiology.ucdavis.edu/HAVEN/index.html
Polli-Nation: Why Native Pollinators Matter by Shahla Farzan: /polli-nation-why-native-pollinators-matter/
The Urban Bee Project, University of California, Berkeley: http://nature.berkeley.edu/urbanbeegardens/index_research.html