Of all the thousands and thousands of insect types in the biosphere, we see ourselves most in bees. Through their industry and purpose, society and systems of communication, along with how being covered in pollen-collecting hairs we are vaguely reminded of our own mammalian nature, we intuitively relate with them.
The world of mammals follows, in both scope and range, the history of bees through the Cenozoic era[i]. Tens of millions of years before then, in a particularly bizarre and yet keenly important twist in the story of the evolution that occurred long before the age of the mammals, certain populations of wasps became vegetarian, finding similar nutrients in flower-nectar that other wasp species continue to exploit through predation[ii].
If not for this evolutionary innovation, it is conceivable that mammals would never have proliferated as they do. We live in a world designed by bees, pollinators, and the coevolution of their flowering food sources. Our existence may be tied to theirs.
Even non-scientists have an intuitive sense of the importance of wild, native bees. The ecological role that they play as pollinators, being two to three times more effective at pollination than the European honeybee[i], cannot be understated in the critical maintenance of wild gardens across the evolutionary island that is the California Floristic Province.
Still painting set in motion. Slow down with one of Obi’s animated visions of native bees from the Santa Cruz Mountains.
For the past few million years since California has resembled its current, tectonic configuration, bees (and the other insects, birds and mammals that act as pollinating species) and flowers have worked to produce a world-class portfolio of biodiversity. Of the four thousand bee species found in North America, nearly half are found west of the Sierra Nevada mountains[ii], and the Santa Cruz Mountains, with its mixed of climate and vegetation types, is the perfect place to get to know bees.
It doesn’t take a trained biologist to observe and appreciate the diversity of wild bees as they visit springtime gardens across the southern San Francisco Peninsula. It just takes a quick eye. Spend some time among the flowers, either in a cultivated backyard or in the wildflower fields found in open spaces on the ocean-facing and the Bay-side of the Santa Cruz ridgeline, and chances are you can find at least as many species of bee as you spend minutes observing[iii].
Enjoy this curated selection of native biodiversity, carefully illustrated by this post’s author, Obi Kaufmann. Click to enlarge.
Maybe you’ll notice the diminutive and bright green sweat bee (Halictus spp.) in colorful contrast walking across the petals of yellow sunflowers. Maybe you’ll hear the low hum of the relatively large carpenter bee (Xylocopa varipuncta) as it swoops in to visit the blooming wisteria. Maybe you’ll notice the dark body of the mason bee (Osmia spp.) emerging from the lobed flower of the native deerweed (Lotus scoparius). Instead of trying to identify individual species, the best inroad to appreciating our local, bee diversity is to focus on differentiating the six, taxonomic families of bees[iv]. Don’t be afraid of the latin — common names don’t mean very much and are often misleading.
1. Andrenidae; (an-dren-ih-dee)
These bees tend towards being small and hairy. They make their homes in the ground so are often called mining bees, or sand bees. Generally, they are so small they can fit in tiny flowers, like the bell-shaped blossoms that hang from manzanita.
2. Apidae; (ap-ih-dee)
These are the really common, really big bees. Included in this family are the European honeybees, bumble bees and carpenter bees.
3. Colletidae; (co-lect-ih-dee)
Included in this family are two genera (Colletes and Hylaeus) that are identifiable by their unique faces. If you are lucky enough to study the face of a landed Colletes, you can identify it by its distinctly triangular face. Hylaeus usually has a black body that is contrasted to the yellow markings on its face that make it look like it’s wearing a mask.
4. Halictidae; (ha-lect-ih-dee)
These bees are commonly called sweat bees because apparently, they like to land on human skin and drink sweat, although I’ve never observed this. I like to call them jewel bees because they often are metallic in sheen and bright in color.
5. Megachilidae; (mega-chill-ih-dee)
These bees include the mason or the wool-carder bees. They make their homes inside hollowed out twigs or in tunnels made by other insects like beetles. The invasive and common Anthidium manicatum is a regular visitor to the Santa Cruz mountains.
6. Melittidae; (mel-it-tih-dee)
The most-rare of the bee family types in California. Feeding exclusively on clarkia flowers in the California chaparral, Hesperapis regularis is one of a small number of native species[v].
Obi Kaufmann is author of the popular and epic California best-sellers The California Field Atlas and The State of Water that are each filled with science, history, poetry and art. Growing up in the East Bay as the son of an astrophysicist and a psychologist, for Kaufmann, the epic narrative of the California backcountry holds enough art, science, mythology, and language for a hundred books to come. When he is not backpacking, you can find the painter-poet posting at @coyotethunder.
[i] Gashler, K. “Native bees are better pollinators, more plentiful than honeybees, finds entomologist” Cornell Chronicle, October, 2011.
[ii] Total bee species in North America is about 4,000, and in California the number is closer to 1,600. See: Frankie G, Thorp R, Hernandez J, Rizzardi M, Ertter B, Pawelek J, Witt S, Schindler M, Coville R, Wojcik V. 2009. Native bees are a rich natural resource in urban California gardens. California Agriculture 63(3):113-120.
[iii] There are about 150 species of bee in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. See Hawkes, A. “San Francisco’s Native Bees Do the Job Just Fine” Bay Nature, March 2015.
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