Saving Bees in a Post-wild California

by Chris Bowman / The Mindful Californian

Robbin Thorp, an expert on California native bees, examines a specimen at the Haagen-Daz Honey Bee Haven. Photo by Chris Bowman

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 captures a carpenter bee for a close look. Photo by Chris Bowman

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.

Allan Jones drew this honeybee from one of the many photos he has taken at the Haagen-Daz Honey Bee Haven.

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.


Further readings:

Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven:

Polli-Nation: Why Native Pollinators Matter by Shahla Farzan: /polli-nation-why-native-pollinators-matter/

The Urban Bee Project, University of California, Berkeley:


  1. Angilina Lor

    People need to start understanding that bees are important to us. They play such a big role in our crop production. To know that they are declining is devastating. We use so much pesticides these days it’s unforgivable. We are affecting so much biodiversity of life, including native bees. Again, we need to stop thinking so much about making everything perfect and start realizing that everything that we do affects the diversity of life around us. This is the second time this week that I’ve learned about the importance of bees. I think it’s something to really consider learning more about.

  2. Sara Johnson

    Bees are an interesting and, of course, important pollinator in our environment. Without bees, the production of food crops would decrease and this is a HUGE factor that plays a role in our survival. Pollination is an essential service to our ecosystem. Most individuals have difficulty in the spring time with allergies but the wind dispersion of pollen grains cannot be our only method of pollination. We require the help of insects and therefore we should value their work. With that, there are plenty of sites that explain ways of helping the environment and helping the insect community which in turn, helps us.

  3. Aaron Howse

    After reading the two articles on the American lawn this article is a perfect segway. Creating lawn alternatives and native bee habitats should be one in the same. Native plants should attract native bees and take less water to care for. Bees are an indicator species in terms of the health of our planet and their decline says a lot. Promoting this idea along with the lawn alternatives should sway more people to make changes.

  4. Kelly Heal

    I believe growing more flower gardens to attract bees is a great thing to do as we are currently experiencing a sharp decline in bees (CCD) in our changing climate. Bee’s are extremely important to pollination. Without pollination this world would be a very different place. However, a utopian perspective of this would say that technology will fix this problem. We will adapt through technology to live without pollinators in this world. A neo-malthusian perspective on this would bring up the issue “why would we want to live like this”? By eliminating biodiversity in this world we will lose many different plant and animal species. This will ultimately leave us more susceptible to disease, species loss, and many other harmful situations that we may not be able to withstand in our rapidly changing world.

  5. Jaspreet Bains

    The bee population is still declining and it is an important problem that more people need to be aware of and do more to help. I like that people have areas that the bees can flourish and I think more of this is needed since bees play such an important role in agriculture. Even if every school had a garden for the bees to flourish it would be a great start to help increase the overall numbers. It would be nice to see more information on how exactly we can help increase the bee population.

  6. Jean Stone

    It is sad to me that there has been such a decline in bee populations in even the last decade. The lack of education about how important these species are to our own food security and sustainable natural environments is one of the largest problems in their decline. It is nice to see that UC Davis is taking a step towards correcting this problem but there is much to be done still towards helping the bees. More efforts in planting bee friendly and preserving nature in a bee friendly manner would not only benefit the species in decline but the human population as well.

  7. Joshua Hudnall

    I recently attended a presentation dealing with the economics of using native bees vs european honeybees for crop pollination. It was given by a student in my International Environmental Problems class. In his presentation, he noted that native bees are only about 20% as efficient as european honeybees. I’m not sure which metrics this was measured against, but it would seem to make sense based on the study that native bees require a variety of bee friendly plants. When it comes to the agriculture business, they typically only have one type of crop in the field; their profit margin would decrease if they had to have mixed crops due to the increased labor costs. It’s sad that the majority of decisions that are made are due to economic reasons. However, because of this the solution to this problem could involve an aspect of making it profitable to grow mixed crops.

  8. Katlin Parker

    I like that this article expresses the need for more “pesticide-free, bee-friendly” gardens. Bee populations are important for pollinating plants, as well as fruit and vegetables. Bees make it possible to preserve many different species in these categories and therefore help maintain biodiversity. There is also the added fact that people like to eat fruit and vegetables, and the production and marketing of them widely contributes to our economy, especially in California. In the past few years, I have noticed an unusually high amount of dead bees on the ground, where I live. I can only attribute this to the use or overuse of pesticides in the area that I live in. It is incomprehensible to me, why people are still allowed to use pesticides that kill bees.

  9. Andre B

    It is interesting to me to learn that there are so many different bee species that act as pollinators. It really is a shame to see how the constant change in the environment (surroundings), primarily by human interactions, is causing declines in species of bees that would have otherwise persisted in their adapted habitats. However, it is encouraging to see that the importance of native bees is being broadcasted in various ways to allow people to better understand the impact that each one of us is able to make.

  10. Nadia Elias

    I have heard about the decline of bees for years now. In fact, it disturbed me so much so that I did research on it myself as one of my class projects. This has been such a problem that it is actually visible to us on a day to day basis. I see so many dead bees most everywhere I go, and it breaks my heart. I can only imagine how many more I haven’t seen have been affected. This article makes me feel hopeful that this can be prevented in the future. I am excited to learn that there are solutions like this that can make a great impact on lessening the decline of our beautiful bees. Thank you!

  11. Alex Schaefer

    Bees are unfortunately some of the most forgotten and under praised organisms contributing to our agricultural economy. The role they play in plant/crop pollination is so essential it is scary. For without them, we would have nowhere near the food output that we do in California or anywhere else. It is reassuring that ongoing efforts are made to facilitate suitable bee habitat for their future sake as well as ours. We depend on them a lot more than they depend on us.

  12. Rachael Dimmer

    I have always had an interest in helping bees after hearing about the colony collapse disorder, but I guess I never truly thought about bee species other than honey bees. However, it is interesting that we are finally seeing value in native bees other than only recognizing the honey bee for its easily controlled characteristics (and honey). I hope to see more articles on this site describing how I could make my garden at home more habitable by native bee species so as to help out in the future of my own food.

  13. Michelle Patras

    Providing the right habitat is key to this on-going problem. If the right habitat is provided, then native pollinators can be just as effective, despite previous doubt. A possible solution could be to start creating areas with more bee-friendly flowers which is away from all of human interference. Once there are more urban habitats, then that should help significantly increase the number of native bees, which are so vital to our food source.

  14. Alex Gwerder

    75 different bees is an impressive diversity for such a small garden. Although the native bees may arguably not be the best, at least there are multiple species for pollinating to provide a genetic diversity. Its a shame the native bees are suffering from habitat damage, as many native plants probably coevolved to adapt to the specific bees.

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