A conversation with Gordon Frankie

Photo by Jaime Pawelek

Meet Gordon Frankie: Cal professor, researcher at the UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab, coauthor of California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists, and all-around bee advocate. I spoke with Gordon about his work at the Urban Bee Lab, some of the threats facing undomesticated bees today, and some simple things ordinary citizens can do to help out their local bees.

Tell me a little bit about the Urban Bee Lab.

The Urban Bee Lab was set up with the idea of researching bee-flower relationships in urban gardens throughout the state of California. We also have a garden on the University of California campus where we evaluate and assess these relationships. By evaluation I mean, which plants are attracting which bees? At what kind of frequencies?

The whole idea is to find out what kind of relationships the bees have with flowers, and vice versa. We want to be able to recommend certain plants in certain areas, and we’d also like to be able to predict which bees are going to be there. In order to do that, we need to make an ongoing assessment, which we’ve been doing for years. So it’s a long-term process, trying to figure out, for example, Salvia uliginosa [bog sage], in Redding. What does it do down in San Luis Obispo or in the Palm Desert area? We’re constantly looking to see which plants are attracting which species of bees and we document that through frequency counts.

Native bees are part of the natural heritage of California.

We’re also trying to get plant collections made so that we can get identifications. We enter that information into a database, and when we use the database correctly we can pull up information about the plant and how it operates in a given area and how the bees respond to that plant in that area. The database is being built right now on about seven thousand counts of bees, and that’s what we use for a lot of our work. What can we predict based upon what we’ve collected already?

I think it’s fascinating—although perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by this—that different species of bees have preferences and habits and are predictable in where they go, depending on the plants in a specific area.

That’s one of the things we’ve learned through our extensive samplings. We’ve covered the state with fifteen different cities, all the way from Redding down to Palm Springs and over to Bishop, and within those cities we have about fifty gardens that we’ve been monitoring. We know enough about each garden to know what’s there, and we can assess whether or not we’re getting the same bee species going to these same flowers in each of these gardens.

A significant portion of your work involves getting farms in on being friendlier to undomesticated bees, especially as Colony Collapse Disorder takes its toll on European honey bees. Can we look forward to seeing a native bee species as a new workhorse for agriculture throughout California?

Well, it’s a possibility. We like to look at this more from the standpoint of the native bees that we discover that also like crop flowers, that they will supplement honey bees. We don’t anticipate that the honey bee is going to disappear; we just think it may not be as commonly used as in the past. In the past we could pretty much do what we wanted with honey bees, but then they suddenly started having these problems. So one of the reasons that we do this work with bee flowers is that we’d like to be able to know if we still have problems with the honey bee in ten or twelve years from now, what can we expect from native bees? And what can we do to make the habitat more favorable for those bees that we know are good for pollination?

All bees are interested in three things: pollen, nectar, and sex. That’s it! You’re not on that list!

So this is what we’re doing right now. We’re constructing habitats based upon all our predictive information that we’ve developed over the state, and we’re taking those ornamental plants and we’re putting them into farms and orchards both in northern and southern California. What we want to know is, which of the bees that are coming to our flowers are also going to the crop flowers?

Once we find out which bee species are making the transition between the two types of flowers, then we want to know, what do we have to do to make that particular bee species or group of bee species happy, so to speak? And then we start thinking about the plants that they like and we put the same kinds of plants in there. What kind of nesting materials do they like? So we’re rebuilding the habitats around the species that we know are actually moving between our flowering plants and the crop flowers. Once we figure that out—and we’ve figured that out for a number of crops already—, we start looking very intensively at what those bees need in order to increase their numbers.

And your work encompasses both the macro level and a micro level—that is, with individuals. I’ve heard several stories of people who are a little afraid of bees, but they visit your research gardens or attend a workshop and they become converts to bee-watching.

There’s something to be said about this: every time you go in your own garden, or into a community garden, there are bees there. You don’t pay attention to them until somebody comes along and says, “The bees are doing this.” And then you start looking and next thing you know, you’re actually paying attention.

On the downside of that, some of these botanic gardens are so worried about having somebody get stung that they don’t want to call attention to the fact that there are bees all over the place—even though there are bees everywhere ’cause they plant the plants that attract the bees! That’s the reason why we make our collections at botanic gardens: they’re pulling in bees right and left. Some of these places like the ideas of us putting signage there about these bees that are pollinating and are of great benefit to the environment as well as to people, and other places are afraid of it. They’re afraid of information. I never quite understand that.

I really like that California Bees and Blooms is a guide to paying attention to bees. It’s not just taxonomic. Right from the get-go, you write,

Anyone who has spent any amount of time in a bee-garden has experienced a glimmer of the awe and joy expressed by John Muir in the wilds of California: the vibrant hum of tiny wings, the ungainly bob of bumble bees in flight, flower heads gently tousled by the shimmying dance of pollen collection. Patient observation reveals a whole world of colorful relationships and activities on which our tiny backyard ecosystems—and most other terrestrial ecosystems for that matter—are built.

Patient observation and careful attention—I think it really opens up how cool these bees are and the instrumental role they play in the beauty around us.

Yeah. I think also that it’s a matter of focusing your eyes on something, like everything else in our lives. We pass by many things, and then one day we want to buy a product. So we’re looking around, and suddenly everybody’s got that product we’re looking at. Or a house of a certain color. In the case of the bees it’s a matter of what we call getting “bee eyes”: watching them and paying attention to the fact that there are a lot of differences out there.

We like to call attention to the fact that it doesn’t take much to actually attract bees to your garden. All you have to do is make sure you’ve planted a few things that they like, like cosmos and poppies and sunflowers; native California plant species in particular are quite attractive. And then people get used to the idea of seeing these things. If they read a little tiny bit they recognize that all bees are vegetarian. Wasps are the carnivores. And the bees are only interested in three things: pollen, nectar, and sex. That’s it! You’re not on that list!

That’s my article title right there. Speaking of wasps, I know Malcolm’s favorite part of this book is the section on the natural enemies of bees. I particularly enjoyed reading about thick-headed and phorid flies, and how they insert their eggs into their hosts’ abdomen at night and then the egg hatches Alien-style from the inside out. I was curious about your choice to include all that deliciously macabre information.

We wanted to establish the fact that, like most organisms, the bees have their own set of natural enemies. Their worst natural enemy, I think, is a blue jay, ’cause the damn things go around to gardens and they pick off the bees—especially when they find a garden that has got more bees than another garden. Sometimes we get out there with brooms and sticks and chase the birds away from our garden because we know that they’re waiting for the bees to come in. So I tell gardeners that we work with, “Whenever you see a blue jay in your garden, chase it!” Blue jays are part of it, sometimes mockingbirds.

But you have all these other things that go after bees, like spiders, predatory insects, and parasitic insects as well. The point we’re really trying to make here is that bees are not unlike every other organism. They have a list of their natural enemies. And we’re just trying to make the readers aware that it isn’t just honey bees that have problems!

In fact, in the world we have about twenty thousand species of bees. Fifteen percent of those bees are considered to be cuckoo bees. That is, they lay their eggs in the nest of another bee and usually kill the host bee in the process. So they learn to parasitize each other. Fifteen percent is pretty high.

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Is that proportion about the same for California specifically?

You know, we haven’t added them all up, but it’s probably close to that. Maybe in the neighborhood of ten or twelve percent.

It seems like we have duties to support those species that are so critical to our well-being.

Yeah.

So let’s say there’s someone who would like to attract more bees to his garden, but he’s just not ready to make the leap to all native California plants. Can he use some nonnative plants, too?

Oh, yes! A combination of native and nonnative plants is what we actually propose to people, because you can’t get enough natives that flower all year round and produce enough reward to keep the bees there. So you have to turn to ornamentals, which have a tendency to flower longer, and they’re also very attractive. You know, cosmos is a nonnative and it’s very attractive in the summer and into part of the fall, and you’ve got other species that do the same things. Very few native California plants linger into the second half of the summer or the early fall so you have to supplement with other plants. Nothing wrong with nonnative plants. If the bees like it, go for it!

We actually have a chapter where we talk about various types of gardens and what you can expect in these gardens in terms of attracting bees. We call them garden recipes. We have an all-native plant garden, and we have what we call a bee sanctuary garden where we combine native and nonnative plants. Then we have a vegetable garden where we add some plants that are not vegetables and you can have a vegetable garden and bee plants at the same time, and we have the “brown thumb garden” which is a garden where you just don’t pay much attention to it but it attracts bees.

That sounds like just my speed. So for someone who is reading this blog post right now, what are three things that he or she could do right now to help California’s wild bees?

The first thing to do is to read the plant list and realize that you can buy plants that will immediately attract bees any time of the year, and find a space where you can plant them. Make sure that you don’t use any harmful chemicals around them. Whatever you do, use very little mulch, because mulch prevents ground-nesting bees from making entry into the ground.

You could inform your neighbors that you’re doing this. You could speak on behalf of the bees at civic doings. Talk it up in your neighborhood. You could even take your lawn out and put in a bee garden.

Back in June, you told Bay Nature that the drought was having an effect on the timing of some bee species’ emergence from their nests and burrows. Four months on, has anything changed?

No. What happens, I think, when you have the drought, especially if you have a garden that’s not being well-watered, is that the flowering won’t be as vigorous or as strong. So you won’t have as much pollen or nectar. And sometimes the flowering, depending upon the plant species, will either be early or late. You can expect the quality of the flowering to be less. That’s the way we look at it. If you were to measure the nectar, you would find that there’s a reduction in the quantity of nectar. I’m not sure about the pollen as we haven’t worked too much with it. Basically the overall quantity of flowers being produced is less, because it takes energy to produce flowers.

But you go on to say that these bees are drought-resilient. So they’ll be okay?

California has a Mediterranean climate. We get dry years, dry periods, and the bees have survived. And the way they do that is they just hold over, just like the plants do, especially in natural environments, and they just don’t come out in the numbers that they would normally come out in if you had a year with normal precipitation. They can hold over in their nests, and they can do it for some time. Whereas they normally come out in the second year after a nest was made, they might be able to hold over for two, three, four years after that. They have the capacity to do that.

Sounds like bees have a little better handle on drought management than we do.

Yes, they do!

Any last words for our readers?

The thing that I like to stress is that these native bees are part of the natural heritage of California. We ought to be very much aware of the role that they play in our lives, and that it’s very easy to help them. You don’t have to think of some agency or some NGO doing the job. You can do it yourself in your own garden.