Today, Tom and I travelled about 120 miles northwest of Walnut Creek to the town of Hopland, CA, to the Hopland Research and Extension Center of the University of California. We went to participate in an event called "Native Bees in Your Backyard," presented in partnership with the Urban Bee Lab at UC Berkeley. We heard three speakers, Dr. Gordon Frankie of the Bee Lab, Dr. Rollin Coville, noted insect photographer and bee expert in his own right, and Kate Frey, author of 'The Bee Friendly Garden.' We had a beautiful catered lunch by Black Dog Farm, and then got to tour Kate Frey's own garden nearby. Tom and I finished our trip with a visit to Cal Flora nursery in Santa Rosa and came home tired, but happy, with some new plants for pollinators, and armed with a lot of new information and inspiration.
The bee experts talked first, describing the research the Urban Bee Lab is doing, and what the preliminary findings are from that research - how many species are found in urban backyards, the general health of these bees, what they are eating and how they are nesting, and how to provide habitat for them in our own backyards. 40% of the country's native bee species are found in California, because we have such diverse habitat. The native bees evolved to survive with native plantings, so our discussion about flowers revolved mostly around California native plants. However we did get some tips for what non-native flowers are also good for pollinators.
The information that I found most exciting from this talk was the research and education that Dr. Frankie and the Bee Lab are doing in our local agricultural communities. We have a lot of family farms near here - a large area in Brentwood, east of Mt. Diablo, and another in the Capay Valley, north of Vacaville, etc. There are many farms within each of these areas, both organic and conventional. European honeybees are often relied on to do most of the pollinating on these farms, and since honeybees are in trouble and suffering declines, the Bee Lab wants to get farms accustomed to relying on native pollinators to do that work instead. In order for that to happen, certain habitat requirements must be met. Many farmers aren't familiar with those requirements and need some guidance. I find this kind of mentorship really encouraging because the things that native bees require (for example, letting patches of weeds and flowers grow between the fruit trees) also really help with increasing soil fertility and keeping moisture from evaporating, both important features in a farm setting.
Then Kate Frey gave us a brief overview of her philosophy and design esthetic with regards to gardening for bees and other pollinators. With a promise that we'd talk more at her garden after lunch, we broke for a delicious Thai curry and fruit salad. Plus honey ice cream! We got to talk to the other workshop participants during our meal which was fun. I sat near Dr. Coville and got to chat him up about photographing insects, and what cameras he might recommend if I decide to get more serious about it. That was fun. Then we headed over to Ms. Frey's home to tour her garden. And, oh my. What a garden it was. I didn't take many pictures because I was too busy gawking.
I wish I could just take a video camera and go around her yard and give you a tour, it was such a beautiful place. And the bees were literally on every flower. It was a pollinator haven. It was fun to follow Kate around and hear her talk about different areas in her garden, then follow Dr. Frankie around and listen to him talk about all the native bees (not one of which I took a picture of, sorry).
During the course of our day in Hopland, I met the owner of CalFlora, a great nursery in Santa Rosa - I have often looked up plants for ID on their website, but I had never been there. On the way home we stopped and bought several asters, a pitcher sage, and some native sunflowers. I'll be planting them tomorrow morning. You can never have enough plants for pollinators!
This was just the most marvelous day. If I could give you just one tip after all I learned today, it would be this: Take some time to watch the activity in your garden and on your flowers. Chances are, you'll see a native bee no matter where you live. And once you see one, you'll start seeing many, and then you'll begin to get excited about how they live and what jobs they are doing in your garden. They really are the most marvelous creatures. And if you live in California, it's worth it to get Dr. Frankie's book, California Bees and Blooms.