While honeybees seem to belong on the scene, they are relative newcomers in the California landscape. Beekeeping is around 7,000 years old, and workers are depicted blowing smoke into hives as they are removing honeycombs in Egyptian paintings on the walls of the sun temple of Nyuserre Ini from the Fifth Dynasty (before 2422 BCE).
Early North American settlers brought the honeybee to eastern territories by the early 1600s, but it wasn’t until 1853 that Christopher Shelton successfully introduced the now common honeybee (Apis mellifera) to Santa Clara, California. Their rise closely mimicked the rise of agriculture in our state. Honeybees are responsible for a 25 to 40 percent increase in the harvest of some crops over fields that have not had bees to assist in pollination. It is estimated that about one-third of all the crops consumed in the United States come from insect-pollinated plants, and honeybees are responsible for 80 percent of that pollination. Savvy farmers have long paid for the privilege of hosting beehives on the edges of their fields to accomplish this. The increased yield is valued at well over $10 billion per year in the U.S.
Most of the bees that visit urban gardens are likely the escaped wild relatives of the first introduced stock. They have adapted to life here and may form hives wherever suitable habitat can be found — hollow cavities in trees or un-insulated walls in houses or outbuildings, for example. Bees do sting, and many people suffer allergic reactions of varying degrees from merely irritating to truly life-threatening, but they are generally helpful insects. While foraging for their own food, they pollinate both native plants and those in the urban landscape, from fruits to flowers.
Unfortunately, in the last few years, bees have been dying in alarming numbers. In the U.S. alone, more than 25 percent of the managed honey bee population has died since 1990. Scientists think many factors may be at play, but the biggest ones are probably the following:
• Global warming, which has caused flowers to bloom earlier or later than usual. When pollinators come out of hibernation, the flowers that provide the food they need to start the season have already bloomed.
• Pesticide use on farms. Some toxic pesticides meant to kill pests also harm bees. Many pesticides banned by other countries because they harm bees are still available in the United States.
• Habitat loss brought about by development, abandoned farms, the growing of crops without leaving habitat for wildlife, and the growing of gardens with flowers that are not friendly to pollinators.
• Parasites, such as more vigorous strains of harmful mites.
Locally, beekeepers in a small area in Montecito have experienced the loss of thousands of bees, which they suspect may be due to pesticides used near them. In Santa Maria, the potential use of pesticides in citrus orchards and strawberry fields to prophylactically protect them from the new, dreaded Asian citrus disease HLB, has beekeepers on the alert. For more information and links to other bee organizations, go to the Santa Barbara Beekeepers Association website at sbba.org/index.html.
The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is holding a bee seminar titled What’s All the Buzz About? in April. For details, visit sbbg.org/classes-events/lectures-symposia. Lotusland is also talking about (and keeping) bees. An exhibit of art pieces celebrating bees is open in the Pavilion and several salons and a film screening and even an original dance performance are planned. Information is on the web at lotusland.org/attend.
Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.