LAFAYETTE -- Dr. Gordon Frankie said native bees have preferences, and knowing what they like can improve the health of your garden.
"If they have a choice, they'll go after native plants," said Frankie, a professor and research entomologist at UC Berkeley. He and Steve Gentry, a founding member of the Mount Diablo Beekeepers Association, teamed up for a recent Lafayette Library Foundation Science Cafe presentation.
Frankie's point -- that local gardeners hoping to attract Agapostemon texanus or Xylocopa varipuncta, two local native bee species, should include native plants in their gardening plans. And mulching should be done lightly because 70 percent of all native bees nest in the ground and can't burrow through materials heavier than soil.
A project at Frog Hollow Farm and other Brentwood farms is demonstrating the impact of placing native plants between crop rows.
Urban areas are ideal for bees, Frankie claimed, because of the diverse food supply they offer. The Oxford Tract Bee Garden he and his team of researchers planted allows them to monitor and categorize bees' attraction to native and nonnative plants. A 10-city survey across California is providing a detailed picture of the bee population. San Diego, he said, is the worst city for attracting bees.
"It's their gardening culture: No one is using diverse, floral plants," Frankie said.
On the other end of the spectrum, a 30-by-30-foot garden in Ukiah had 68 bee species, and Santa Cruz is a hotbed beehive community. (The Bay Area is fifth on that list.)
Gentry, known by local residents as "Bee Man" -- although he is considering an upgrade to "Emperor of Bees" -- began the popular event's 60-minute talk with a bucket.
"All of these products from bees are helpful to humans," he declared, pulling hunks of beeswax and jars of honey, pollen and actual bees from the container. "Their history goes back thousands of years."
Within five minutes, Gentry had advocated (beeswax is used for lubricants in cosmetics, candles, wax-resist dyeing and food preserving), acknowledged ("We have some hindrance about eating insects, but watch a bear break into a bee's nest. He'll eat the whole thing," he said), and advertised (pollen is the new superfood, with protein, enzymes, vitamins and minerals, according to Gentry).
He also shared a 30-year-old epiphany he had while watching a black bear and her two cubs demolish a rotted tree while feasting on termites.
"I wasn't the first person to see natural things. Forty thousand years ago, hunter-gatherers watched bears, bees and insects, too. The timeline is long," he said.
Skipping through honeybee history, from Middle Eastern origins to monks in monasteries needing dependable light sources to small farmers before World War I who kept just enough hives to feed their families and pollinate their crops, Gentry landed on the contemporary world's bee dilemmas.
"Industrialization changed farms. They became bigger, and now, large pollination contracts and commercial beekeeping are driving the business. (More than a million) hives are brought into the central Southern California valley for pollinating almonds each year."
Frankie, whose business is less about keeping bees and more about watching them, asked the Science Cafe audience of gardeners, beekeepers and general science fans a series of questions.
Delighting at stumping his listeners, he said 1,600 bee species were attracted to California's 5,000 flowering plants, drawing a hefty percentage of the United States' 4,000 total bee species.
"Notice, you are not on their list," he said. "Bees are vegetarians. They're not after you or your burgers. Wasps are the 'meat bees' after your burgers."
The University of California Press will publish Gordon Frankie's findings in a forthcoming book, "Native Bees and Their Flowers in Urban California Gardens." Bee appreciators who don't want to wait can find information at http://nature.berkeley.edu/urbanbeegardens/index.html and www.diablobees.org.