The buzz on bees

By Rebecca Jepsen
for the Mercury News
March 6, 2009

The decline of our local bee population is a topic of much discussion, and many studies are under way to determine why it is happening. Threats include disease, habitat destruction, use of harmful pesticides, interaction with invasive species and climate change.

Bees are responsible for pollinating nearly 30 percent of all the food we eat. How you garden and what you grow can affect bee populations, which number about 25,000 species worldwide.

Of the 4,000 species in the United States, about 1,500 species have been recorded in California.

There are bumblebees (round, black or yellow with white or orange bands); carpenter bees (shiny, black and as large as the bumblebee); digger bees (medium-size, fast fliers); sweat bees (one-fourth- to one-half-inch long, dark with metallic green sheen and hairy abdominal bands, and, although attracted to human sweat, are harmless); and leaf-cutter bees (smoke-colored with pale bands on a flat abdomen).

Honeybees (three-fourths-inch long, ranging in color from blond to black) originated primarily in South and Southeast Asia.

Although honeybees are the "sweethearts" for our cup of tea, bumblebees are the workhorses of pollination. They are the primary pollinators of vegetables grown commercially in our local greenhouses. They are also important for crops such as blueberries, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and almonds.

By creating an inviting habitat and setting the proper groundwork, you can encourage native bees into your yard and garden. Plant some native favorites, including ceanothus, salvias, clarkias, lupines and California poppies.

Add color with asters, sunflowers, cosmos, cuphea and nepetas. Mediterranean plants such as lavenders, penstemon and yarrow are great attracters.

Not only is white alyssum attractive to bees, it also is the favorite plant of lacewings and ladybugs, which will help devour those pesky aphids. Plant a variety of mint, parsley, basil, fennel and rosemary — treats to be shared by you and your bees.

How you mulch can also make a major difference. The popular practice of "wall-to-wall" mulching deters bees that nest in the ground. Digger and sweat bees need a decent amount of soil in which to create their hives.

Use mulch around planting beds to save water and help prevent weeds, but save money and time by not applying where you don't need it. The bees will be happy, too.

Mark your calendar

Don't miss the 15th annual Master Gardener Spring Garden Market on April 4 at History San Jose. Arrive early to get your pick of the hundreds of varieties of tomatoes and peppers that will be available. There will be garden classes and workshops. Doors open at 9 a.m. Go to mastergardeners.org/SGM for details.