With the decline of wild habitat to support pollinators it should come as no small surprise that bees are swarming urban areas in search of high-quality, diverse food sources. Research by Gordon Frankie, urban entomologist at the University of California Berkeley, is probing the question of how often bees are foraging in urban areas. He is currently working in the Guancaste Province of Costa Rica, attempting to quantify just how often bees do visit cities in search of food, the results turn out to be; more than you would think.
Frankie’s research, funded by the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, is finding that urban areas are becoming oases for foraging pollinators. As counter-intuitive as this seems urban areas seem to provide bees with novel resources as well as an almost never ending growing season, in some places. The Costa Rica Bee Project has been operating for over a decade, with Frankie and his colleagues monitoring the behaviors and population changes of bees in the study area. They have also been collecting data regarding plant species found growing wild in forests and cultivated in cities and observing numbers of bees foraging at both. While Costa Rica is home to 800 species of bees, the research team has collected 112, but they have found that bees will visit urban plants equally, sometimes more, often as wild varieties.
Native plants are almost always preferable to bees, whether wild or cultivated, although bees won’t completely disregard non-native species in a pinch. According to Frankie’s research, 80% of bees visiting native, wild settings are also visiting urban settings, this was much higher than they had anticipated. These results offer some hope, with the destruction or degradation of more natural areas, urban areas seem relatively stable and bees appear to be able to adapt. The next question is where will pollinators nest? It is not yet clear whether they will commute from wild areas for meals or begin nesting in urban environments, which presents an entire set of its own challenges. Properly designed and maintained urban gardens may be the answer to both, in other words, gardens planted with pollinator preferences in mind and maintained responsibly may enhance the abilities of pollinators to do their jobs, reproduce and thrive.
Education and outreach will be a crucial element in making this plan work, Frankie’s team in collaboration with Anna Chasoul, a biologist from the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica, are developing and implementing presentations palatable to schools and a variety of audience regarding the importance of bees, species native to Costa Rica and the plants that support them. Concurrently, Frankie and his colleagues at Berkeley are designing a prototype bee garden for Costa Rican bees, which will be used as a model for future pollinator friendly gardens in the country and beyond.
In the U.S. honeybees, which actually are not native, get all the press, although they deserve due to their overwhelming importance to agricultural, land management and the economy. Where honeybees fall short, due to the issues they are currently facing or otherwise, native species can help pick up the slack and should also be managed for appropriately. Although native bee species will go where the water and pollen is, they tend to gravitate toward native plant species, which means we may need to adjust our urban gardening techniques here at home. The majority of urban gardeners use exotic plants, asking them to completely rework garden designs may turn them away, but exchanging just a few exotics for natives can be a game changer. Some things you can do to plant a pollinator friendly garden or convert some of your garden to make it more attractive to native pollinators are:
- Plant at least 50% (preferably more) of your garden with native species,
- Choose plants that are appropriate for your hardiness zone and climate,
- Plant for a long and varied bloom period,
- Include annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs for a a diverse palate for pollinators,
- With flower beds, don’t be afraid to plant densely; more flowers=more resources and more choice for pollinators,
- Create nesting habitat on your property, 75% of bees are ground-nesters requiring bare ground, try to leave bare patches if and where possible, the remaining 30% require crevices, a dead tree or old snag that can safely be left standing is ideal,
- Plant varieties can be repeated throughout the garden or planted in patches; both native bees and honeybees require 10 square feet from which to gather nectar.