Bringing back California’s wild bees

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This story originally appeared inbioGraphic, an independent magazine about nature and regeneration powered by the California Academy of Sciences. 

On a toasty morning in March, a steady stream of hikers trudges up the steep road leading into Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Many seek out this popular park just north of San Diego for the expansive views of the sparkling Pacific Ocean and the gnarled, endangered pine trees (Pinus torreyana) that lend the reserve its name.  But a slender woman in a Panama hat and orange safety vest ignores the views. Instead, she lingers along the road’s dusty shoulder, staring intently at a patch of black sage that bursts with petite lilac flowers.

Suddenly, the woman whacks the bush with a long collecting net, flipping the net expertly to contain its buzzing contents. The air erupts with the sweet, herbal fragrance of sage. Her voice betrays her disappointment. European honeybee,” Lauren Ponisio announces. This is the thing we’ve really noticed,” says Ponisio, an ecologist with the University of Oregon. “We just catch so many honeybees.”

Ponisio and her small field crew are combing for native bees here today as part of a modern census of insect pollinators across California ecosystems, from the Pacific Coast to the Sonoran Desert and Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Wielding traps and nets on the same ground where a predecessor did a landmark survey more than a half-century ago, they want to know how the Golden State’s pollinators have changed, and begin to understand what it could mean for California.

Lauren Ponisio uses a net to catch bees during a survey in Torrey Pines State Reserve.
Ashley Braun

Pollinators are all about food and sex. In their hunt for nourishment, birds and bees (as well as other insects and mammals) unintentionally transfer pollen from the male parts of some plants to the female parts — and voila, plant sex. This handy interspecies relationship allows plants ranging from cacti to almonds to be fertilized, to fruit, and to reproduce. Bees are by far the most prevalent pollinator,  and are the group of most interest to Ponisio. California traditionally has been a global hotspot of bee diversity. “There are about 1,500 to 1,700 species of wild bees in California,” she says. To her, the state is “the Amazon for bee diversity.”

And yet, after another half-hour of scouring blossoms, Ponisio comes up empty-handed. I hope we get at least one native bee,” she laughs nervously.

Instead, she nets honeybee after honeybee. European honeybees are one of the domesticated bee species that humans have exploited in some way, whether for honey, wax, and crop pollination, for at least 9,000 years. Amber-and-black striped, native to Eurasia and Africa, these honeybees seem to be everywhere Ponisio and her field crew look these days, despite the popular narrative that these bees in particular are in trouble. The ecologist and her field crew find so many honeybees in their surveys, they don’t bother collecting all of them in vials, as they do with the other insects. Instead they simply catch one honeybee and count the rest on that plant — another two here, seven more there.

European honeybee on a flower, California.
Krystle Hickman

INDIGENOUS PEOPLE were shaping the natural world even before white people arrived in what would become California.  But European colonizers brought a new and disruptive chapter to that story — along with many new and disruptive plants and animals. This transformation has accelerated since population, development, and agriculture boomed here in the 20th century. Today, California’s metamorphosis isn’t limited to its landscape; its biodiversity is changing too.

This problem isn’t confined to California. As humans today reshape the planet — expanding cities, developing green spaces, transporting species, altering the climate — far-flung ecosystems start to look increasingly similar to one another. Places that once hosted distinct and fantastic variations of life become dominated by a few species, often newcomers that are generalists to start, or those that have adapted to thrive near modern human settlements. Think: house sparrows. Rats. English ivy. And also, European honeybees, says Ponisio.

Researchers Julie Lockwood and Michael McKinney coined a term for this: “biotic homogenization.” But Lockwood has a catchier way of thinking about what's happening: the McDonaldization of nature. In the same way you can step off an airplane nearly anywhere on Earth and encounter a McDonald's fast-food restaurant, travelers now can see many of the same plants and animals an ocean apart. That's just unprecedented,” says Lockwood, an ecology professor at Rutgers University.

How those plants and animals interact with each other is shifting, too. Scientists recently looked at decades of records that mentioned fruit-bearing plants, and the animals that ate their fruit and dispersed their seeds. They wanted to see how those connections had changed over time. In the early years, no surprise: local birds ate local fruit. But over the past 75 years, the interactions between introduced species have risen seven-fold. Thanks to globalization, old geographic boundaries have blurred. Now, birds originally from South Asia gobble the fruits of South American plants — from their new homes in Hawai’i.

A honeybee in an urban park. European honeybees have proliferated around the world often outcompeting local species.
Laurent Geslin

While human activity helps some species spread, it inadvertently prunes still other species, often the rarer and weirder ones, by forcing them into ever-shrinking, disconnected patches of habitat. And — keeping with the fast-food metaphor — modern society now franchises this ecological model worldwide.

These human forces are transforming complex ecosystems into something more akin to biological strip malls, where everyplace starts to look more like anyplace else.

A 2019 United Nations report identified the effects of biotic homogenization among the major, but understudied, trends reshaping ecosystems since 1970. Researchers have spotted homogenization among birds, fish, mammals, plants, and a range of other living things across the globe. Julian Olden, a freshwater ecologist, calls it the by-product of a global anthropogenic blender.” One result of this biological blending, Lockwood argues, is engineering a “more boring” world with fewer opportunities for surprise and wonder.

A Vosnesensky's bumble bee collects pollen from sulfur buckwheat plants, Trinity Alps, California.
Clay Bolt

AFTER MORE THAN an hour of swiping at honeybees, Ponisio shouts with delight. Oh! A native bee, a native bee! Oh — land, land!” she implores the hovering wild bee, which has not yet committed to visiting a flower.

A few moments later, she introduces a new face to the days collection: Bombus vosnesenskii, the yellow-faced bumble bee. The new most common bumble bee in California,” she says, holding up a vial containing the fuzzy, golden-crowned insect. It used to be Bombus occidentalis but that one is basically extinct.”

Not every scientist gets so excited about finding the common; taxonomists often love to collect rare species. But Ponisio and her team are following an unusual pursuit, thanks to scientific exploits five decades earlier. Between 1968 and 1970, a Stanford graduate student named Andrew Moldenke surveyed two transects across California, in the north and the south,  collecting every insect pollinator he encountered, rare and mundane alike, from desert to alpine meadow. It was pioneering work. Many pollinators he found had never been described by Western science.

Lauren Ponisio identifies a bee caught during a survey in San Diego’s Torrey Pines Natural Preserve.
Ashley Braun

Ponisio and her crew now are in the midst of an effort to replicate Moldenke’s survey. They want to see how pollinators today differ at those sites, and by how much — aiming to gather five years of observations in each place. California has changed wildly in the 50-plus years since Moldenke surveyed them. The state's human population has nearly doubled. Fires and drought rage. Homes have bloomed across the land like California poppies. One of Moldenke‘s survey sites is now an ATV park. Another is covered with fancy suburban houses.

Ponisio has predictions for what they will find. “I’m expecting a lot of common species to not be common anymore,” she says. A recent snapshot of Californias bumble bee populations by other researchers failed to turn up several once-common species, and where the researchers looked in Southern California, they could not find more than 10 bumble bees at any one site. Even so, Ponisio and her team are still encountering a range of native pollinators — including tiny sweat bees, gleaming green bees, metallic blue mason bees, downy bumble bees, and yellow-and-black syrphid flies that mimic bees.

“I’m expecting a lot of common species to not be common anymore.”

Ponisio also expects to find another difference in the 21st century: In the late 1960s, Moldenke rarely found European honeybees at many sites. Ponisio doubts that will be true now.

After hours of swinging nets at Torrey Pines, on a trail overlooking the sea, Ponisio is puzzling over the identity of a primrose that a bee just visited when a hiker interrupts her. He perks up when she says shes actually focused on bees. I’m a beekeeper myself,” he says.

Yeah, we’ve caught a lot of honeybees today. I will say that,” Ponisio replies carefully.

Apis mellifera, the European honeybee?” he says with a smile. Sweet.”

The exchange illuminates another challenge of this work: Unlike their domesticated European cousins, wild bees have a brand-awareness problem.

European honeybees are iconic, one of the few broadly beloved insects. Schoolchildren draw them. Urban beekeepers nurture them. Farmers lean on rented hives to pollinate their crops. Around the world, 81 million colonies of European honeybees ooze out more than 1.7 million tons of honey annually.

But it is non-native,” Ponisio says of the honeybee. “And it’s probably one of the most successful invasive species of all time. It’s on every continent besides Antarctica." And honeybees, which easily become feral, may contribute to the decline of their wild compatriots. There seems to be a lot of evidence that they share their viruses and parasites,” says Ponisio, adding that honeybees also can compete for food with wild bees.

Complicating matters, when the public hears about bees at all, it hears of the decline of honeybees. Starting in 2006, beekeepers in North America and Europe reported the sudden die-off of large portions of their colonies — at times up to 90% of their bees. Several causes probably contribute to this mysterious “colony collapse disorder,” but disorder aside, research indicates that parasites, disease, and pesticides all are worsening honeybees’ broader woes.

The irony is that, worldwide, honeybee numbers are higher than ever.

This popular concern over domesticated honeybees overshadows what’s happening with wild bees. Scientists don’t have a good grasp of how well the worlds 20,000 species of bees are faring. They often lack even the most basic information about wild populations. But where available, the trend is often downward.

No wonder the public is confused, Ponisio says, walking past the crowds at Torrey Pines. It’s as if scientists like her are trying to draw attention to the plight of spotted owls, but people instead keep asking how farmyard chickens are holding up.

Still, Ponisio is clear about two things: Honeybees need help through improvements in agricultural management. And, wild bees need help via conservation. She remarks, only half-joking, that funders have blacklisted her over this distinction.

Yet in America’s fruit and vegetable basket, a place deeply dependent on honeybees, the seeds of help for wild bees are beginning to germinate.

Rented honeybee hives like these in Sonoma, California are part of a $250 million industry.
Jak Wonderly

ON AN APRIL AFTERNOON in California’s Central Valley, a pair of men stand before a strip of flowering bushes that runs between fields of trees heavy with the velvety green bulbs of unripe almonds. Syrphid flies rest in the blossoms of flannel bushes. Clouds of lacewings drift amid the shrubs.This hedgerow at Bixler Ranch represents a bet: If you encourage native pollinators, they’ll return. And the company behind it wagers that it can do well by doing good.

Normally, these fields are a tough place for a bee to make a living: row after row of one crop, blooming at once for a short time, and with plants often doused with pesticides. Modern intensive agriculture in the U.S. relies heavily on European honeybees that don’t need to live long in such places. Each spring hives are trucked around the country on tractor-trailers to do the work of pollinating fruit, nut, and vegetable crops. For a few weeks, a veil of honeybees descends like a resonant cloud upon the beautiful monotony of almond orchards in California’s Central Valley. These highly efficient worker bees pollinate some $15 billion worth of U.S. crops each year. Californias multi-billion-dollar almond industry tops that list. The state is the world's top supplier, and its sprawling agricultural industry would collapse without massive numbers of pollinators.

The seemingly endless rows of almond trees on this farm in California’s Central Valley are part of a multi-billion-dollar industry. / Shutterstock

This reliance comes at huge cost, according to Gary Williamson, one of the men in the field. Pollination is a $250 million industry. For Bixler Ranch, which also depends on the honeybees, hives now rent at $220 a pop  for a week or two of pollination services and rising, says Williamson, a burly man in a plaid shirt and trucker hat who manages this commercial farm in Stockton. The cost to pollinate almost 1,200 acres of almonds and blueberries here runs to nearly half a million dollars every year, he estimates.

The other man, Wood Turner, speaks up. You realize we’ve gotten ourselves as a society in this completely screwed-up situation where the landscapes are degraded, we don't have enough native bees working, and we're spending money to get other bees out here on the farm — non-native bees on the farms to actually do the pollination,” he says. Turner is the senior vice president of global impact for Agriculture Capital, a sustainability-focused investment firm. The company’s California subsidiary runs this farm. “So that combination is really what motivates us.”

Turner walks through the two neatly planted lines of this lively hedgerow. It’s part of a carefully curated network of largely woody native plants whose goal is to feed and house native bees and other pollinators as well as beneficial predatory insects. Bixler Ranch planted its first hedgerow in 2018. The network has grown to three miles, and counting.

The company pursued the hedgerows for a few reasons. One is cost: Farming historically is a thin-margin business. Farmers are always looking for ways to shave expenses. Amid rising costs and a changing climate, Turner sees cultivating healthy wild bee populations as a potential step toward reducing the farm’s reliance on rented honeybees.

bumble bee collects pollen from a native plant in California.
Jak Wonderly

Agriculture Capital also wants to lure the dollars of institutional investors, such as retirement funds, away from extractive industries like fossil fuels. To do so, the company needs to show that regenerative approaches to farming — practices that rebuild soil, store carbon, and support biodiversity — can be good for the planet while also healthy for the bottom line.

Bixler’s hedgerows are one component of that strategy. So, too, is bragging about it.

The farm is part of a certification program called Bee Better Certified, launched in 2017 by the nonprofit Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. The program focuses on building or restoring diverse, healthy habitat for native bees and then protecting those bees from pesticides and diseases on agricultural lands, says Cameron Newell, the program’s coordinator.

To qualify for the Bee Better seal, a grower must meet several requirements. At least 5% of a grower’s production acreage must qualify as pollinator habitat, with 1% in permanent habitat that doesn’t move around the farm. It’s hedgerows, its meadows, its cover crop and understory plantings, and then sort of traditional restoration-style work,” says Newell. In the Central Valley, where immense farms are planted fence to fence, growers often tuck in the bee-friendly plants at the edges, or among rows, he says. At Bixler Ranch, the farm is breaking up old cement-lined irrigation ditches to install hedgerows, which are mainly adjacent to its blueberry fields — the company’s new emphasis.

A grower seeking certification must also reduce pesticide use and target only problem areas. And the farmer cannot use any of four toxic neonicotinoid insecticides that are particularly harmful to bees.

Xerces also consults with farms interested in reaching for the seal, helping them draft a plan with bee-friendly measures tailored to their properties, such as identifying native plants that will offer bees flowery food throughout the year. An independent third party, Oregon Tilth, then performs site inspections to certify that the farms really are better for native bees. From these farms, food companies can now source Bee Better ingredients for their products and display the seal themselves. Some companies originally asked Xerces to create a robust standard, to counter other pollinator labels that lacked third-party verification — Bee Better is the result.

The reach of Bee Better is still small, roughly 25,000 acres and around 38 farms in total,  but its gaining steam — and spots on grocery shelves. Häagen-Dazs ice cream and Silk Almondmilk have both earned the seal.

About 450 acres of blueberries on Bixler Ranch currently have scored the Bee Better certification. Agriculture Capital also invests in five Bee Better Certified organic blueberry farms in Oregon that boast more mature pollinator habitat than at Bixler. Research to date suggests blueberries receive measurable benefits from planting native bee habitat nearby — doubling wild bee numbers and boosting yield by 10 to 20% after a few years. Plus, the investment in habitat can pay for itself within four or five years. The Oregon farms are beginning to see those increased yields, fruit quality, and size, Turner said. And so we’re hoping to get this [California farm] to the same place as well.”

Surveys done by the company at its Oregon farms also have found a bonanza of the bugs a farmer likes: roughly nine times the wild pollinator species, and more than double the beneficial insect species that prey on crop pests, Turner says. That tracks with a larger body of research that shows planting pollinator habitat and reducing pesticide exposure can boost the health and populations of both native bees and honeybees.

A Sonoran bumble bee interacts with an ant on a native Californian plant.
Krystle Hackman

But these benefits don’t happen overnight. Early in the Bee Better programs history, Ponisio received a grant to evaluate its effectiveness among newly certified almond orchards in the Central Valley. She sampled Bee Better farms across the valley, with its vast monoculture, for 150 hours and found just 11 individual native bees — total. She suspects there simply was no native habitat left in the sea of almonds to serve as a source of wild bees for those fledgling Bee Better hedgerows. Discouraged one day during this study, she switched gears and just looked for an insect, any living thing besides an almond or honeybee. That day, she couldn’t find one.

Still, Ponisio supports efforts that encourage farmers to make their fields more welcoming to native bees. More financial incentives would help,  she says, such as the government programs that helped Bixler Ranch fund its hedgerows. So, too, would adoption of rigorous certifications such as Bee Better that could translate into a marketing advantage for growers, and bring them more dollars. Uptake of these practices remains low in agriculture at the moment, even with some incentives, however. A recent survey of more than 300 almond growers by Ponisio and a colleague showed little interest in bee-friendly practices unless growers were having trouble with their honeybees. How to crack the almond industry in terms of sustainability?” she wonders.

Despite occasional bouts of gloom, Ponisio has not lost hope for the world’s wild bees. “I do like to think that we will make positive change for bees,” she says. These invertebrates are resilient, when given the chance. “[If] you do not actively starve or murder them,” she says, “they will show up.”

Even the world’s smallest known bee (Perdita minima), like this individual collecting pollen from a flower in California, plays an important role in the environment.
Krystle Hackman

THROUGHOUT THIS SPRING, Ponisio’s field crew crisscrossed Southern California meadow, marsh, sageland, and desert where entomologist Moldenke investigated decades earlier, searching for what bees remain today. The crew's long weekly drives in a van packed with scientific gear gave them the chance to observe how the region’s human communities also have changed the landscape, imposing the same patterns. Time and again, the van passed housing developments, national banks, cattle fields, golf courses, strip malls.

Scientists who study the homogenization of biodiversity are quick to draw parallels with the forces of globalization now blending human cultures and societies. In countless towns and cities across the world, the unique mom-and-pop shops that helped establish a sense of place have given way to Amazon warehouses and Walmarts. The places that remain could be Anywhere, USA, or Anywhere, Earth. Similarly, as a few languages have swept the globe, spread first by colonizers and then by mass communication, thousands of languages are being slowly forgotten. Human geographies are losing the unique food, speech, and traditions that give them shape and texture. What this means to peoples worldwide — culturally, spiritually — remains to be seen.

As for the environment, will powerful global forces also turn the world's biodiversity into a metaphorical McDonald’s — with plant and animal communities that are nearly the same, everywhere that conditions permit them? Ecologist Lockwood still has hope that won’t happen. But we're definitely trending in that direction,” she says.

A species of ground-nesting bee, Anthophora flavocincta, excavates its burrow in Southern California.
Krystle Hickman

A planet that's less rich and varied from one place to another isn't simply less interesting. It’s like a stock portfolio that isn’t diversified. Less diversity may limit the ability of ecosystems to function in the face of major disruptions such as climate change, says Lockwood. And a more homogenized world raises deeper, value-laden questions, too. In societies everywhere, certain living things form cultural touchstones; they cement our connections to place. California’s state flag, for instance, proudly displays a subspecies of grizzly bear that was unique to California. But settlers shot the last of these grizzlies a century ago. How do our human ties to the Earth change, and also our attitudes toward the land, water, air, and other creatures, when those ecological connections wither? Do humans adapt and form new ties, to a different Earth? Do we become unmoored? Or, will our relationships change in a way we can't yet predict? 

Back at Torrey Pines, Ponisio pauses in her search for bees in a patch of seaside marsh. She gazes over the amber grasses — grasses that arrived with Spanish invaders centuries ago. Ponisio herself grew up in California, and she wonders aloud what California must have looked like nearly 500 years ago when the Europeans first saw it,  before the fleets of big ships, and the missions, and the Gold Rush, and the tech boom, when only Indigenous people lived here and tended the land. The Spanish who arrived, she muses, must have thought this coast looked not unlike their Mediterranean home. Then, both in ways they imagined and in ways they never could have imagined, the Spanish set about making it more like home. 

Of course, no one alive knows what that long-ago California looked like, she says. There are only glimpses of that version of the world set down in books or held in Indigenous knowledge.

A flash of movement pulls her back to the present.

Yet again, it is not a wild bee.

A Vosnesensky's bumble bee visits the flowers of sulfur buckwheat, Trinity Alps, California.
Clay Bolt

Ashley Braun is an award-winning science and environmental journalist based in Seattle, Washington. Her writing has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, Science, Scientific American, and Hakai Magazine, among others, and she has reported in locales from the United Nations climate summit in Morocco to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Reporting for this article was made possible by an award from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

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