Hotel for bees
Local workshop aims to create habitat for native pollinators
The country’s pollinators—insects and birds—are declining at an alarming rate, mostly due to loss of habitat, chemical pesticides, mites and pollutants. And considering about 30 percent of the nation’s food supply is dependent on bees pollinating plants, we could be losing some of our favorite specialty crops—fruits, nuts and vegetables—if the decline continues (see “The birds and the bees,” Greenways, by Evan Tuchinsky).
But there is good news: There are ways to reverse the problem, and locals like Lee Altier are eager to get residents involved. A horticulturist and professor at Chico State’s College of Agriculture, Altier is organizing an upcoming workshop titled “Building Native Bee Hotels,” to be held Feb. 24 at Chico State’s University Farm Organic Vegetable Project, off Hegan Lane.
The goal of the workshop is to provide alternative means of shelter for our insect friends, as the undeveloped areas that were once their homes are “getting paved over,” Altier said. Prior to the workshop, Altier said he’ll have the mini hotel foundations constructed of wood (roughly 18-by-10 inches), and workshoppers can count on accessorizing and filling the houses with all sorts of goodies.
“We’ll have reeds and prunings from grape and fruit trees, cedar shakes … things for them to crawl into—they like to burrow,” said Altier. “[The hotels] are meant to be diverse to attract different bee types.”
While there are a variety of bees that might find these homes inviting, it’s the solitary native bees that Altier says will be looking for shelter in these foundations, which is important, considering they make up the majority of our native bee population. California is home to about 1,000 species of native bees, 26 of which are bumblebees. The rest are solitary, meaning they don’t live in hives with drones and others. Instead, they burrow, most often in the ground, making nests for their young, similar to birds. The bee hotels, then, are simulations of natural shelters for these particular types of bees.
While constructing and adding playful touches to the homes, workshop participants can also expect to learn more about the issues facing native bees.
“At the workshop, we’re going to talk about the variety of native bees in California and their habitat and the food sources they rely on. We’re going to talk about what endangers them. If people are interested, they’re going to be concerned about maintaining habitats. [The hotels] are a place for them to live, but they need areas to forage,” Altier said.
So what can residents do on a broader scale to help maintain these habitats?
“Plant lots of flowers, especially native ones, ones indigenous to this area,” Altier said emphatically. “Wild bees have evolved in synchronicity with wild plants,” he said, so native California bees will be particularly attracted to local and regional plants, which have adapted to native soils and climates. Some of these include coffee berry, buckbrush, native buckwheats, California wild grapes and ceanothus, which is a shrub in the lilac family.
That’s not to discount non-native plant species, which are still important for a healthy, diverse bee habitat. Altier pointed to the rosemary bushes at the farm and laughed, as dozens of bees buzzed around those particular shrubs. “There are still a lot of imported plants that are very attractive to bees, too. With a wide variety of plants, we maintain diversity.” Altier said plants like rosemary are especially helpful because they can bloom in the colder months, like January and February, giving bees a longer pollination period.
Building bee hotels is a new project for Altier, but he’s excited to see where the workshop goes. “We’re expecting about 20 people, but the more the merrier,” he said. Depending on interest, he’s open to holding additional workshops in the future. The workshop is part of a series on farming and cooking specialty crops, offered by Chico State’s Cultivating Community North Valley Project, an educational, nonprofit outreach program funded by USDA’s Specialty Crop block grant. For the last five years, Altier and others who advocate for the importance of strengthening our local food network have held a variety of events for the public, including workshops on crop rotation, identifying insects and building raised beds for gardens.
For Altier, bringing more attention to bees is just one step in maintaining the health of local agriculture. “I’m an advocate of being aware of the ecosystem, of being aware of how plants and animals relate. I’m a big advocate of trying to do things in harmony with the ecosystem.”