Finding Wild Bees

On Wednesday April 4th, O. and I went to Sonoma Valley Regional Park for an afternoon in the rolling oaks.  The park was thoroughly burned during the 2017 fires and has since rebounded quite well.  The grass was tall, more than a foot high, with vetch, lupine, buttercups, radish and other wildflowers abound.  We noticed many of the oaks and manzanita were severely burned to almost 90% of their exposed surfaces and yet their canopies were budding and some manzanita were sprouting new shrub trunks from the core.  All told, it is highly likely that the wildfires destroyed much of the invasive species while the native plants survived and will now spread with less competition.

I noticed immediately the presence of honey bees on some small white and blue buttercups by a stream bed.  Were these feral honey bees or travelers from a hive further up the road?  I hadn't seen any hives along highway 12 and thought it safe to assume that these bees were living somewhere in the park itself.  As we walked down the twisting paths, I stopped every couple minutes to look through binoculars at potential tree nesting spots.  I looked for small holes around twenty feet off the ground in trunks large enough to be perhaps two feet wide.  Sometimes we would see honey bees foraging nearby and attempt to follow their flight paths but this proved very difficult; had we thought ahead and brought some sugar water or honey we could have tracked them better.

No matter, though, as about thirty minutes into the walk I found the colony: about thirty feet off the ground in a hollow tree leaning over a creek, there were two entrances.  One faced south and was my first glimpse at the hive, and as I hiked the fifty feet or so off the path I climbed the hill to see the second entrance facing north.  The video below is not the best as the day was overcast and I couldn't climb the tree for a closer look, but you can see the bees busy against the gray backdrop of the clouds.  This finding is in line with Tom Seeley's research, most clearly presented in Finding The Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting.  Seeley conducts his research on the east coast and we may infer that bees adopt such elevated hive locations for a number of reasons: to avoid snow pack, avoid predators that cannot climb trees, allow for easier access mid-flight, and easier to protect.  Here in California we might add another reason: safety from wildfires.

Overall the afternoon was amazing.  The park was alive with songbirds, butterflies, red tailed hawks, deer, and a plethora of insects that I couldn't identify.  When our trail reached the ridge and curved back north we could see the northeastern hills and the full perspective of land regenerating from wildfire came into view.  Standing knee deep in grass and wildflowers and looking out at black and brown hills across the valley, one gets a small glimpse of terrestrial time, that is to say, time on a scale much larger than the human life.

The next week we went out to the coast to take advantage of an early afternoon before I had to go to work.  It was Sunday and the Bodega Bay area was busy with tourists as we had just had a heavy rainstorm that blocked most of the roads out to deep west Sonoma county.  The atmospheric river caused rain to fall for over twenty-four hours and Salmon Creek was so engourged it almost breached the dunes in a second location.  I took these two photos on Friday around 4pm as I had to take the backroads to work due to flooding.

The rains subsided on Saturday and our Sunday journey to the coast found a lush landscape with little evidence of heavy flooding.  Apparently a lot of the road closures were linked to high tide (the tide held much of the rain runoff on land), another fact that gives one perspective on the massive qualities of natural phenomenon.  We found honey bees in the town of Bodega Bay but I could not find any hives, feral or maintained.  What I did find was ample Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans), a species of flowering plant in the family Boraginaceae.  Echium comes from the Greek word 'ekhis' which means "viper head."  There are sixty species within the genus and all have long snake-like spires whorled in flowers.  They are bee magnets and high nectar producers.  A common ornamental planting along the California coast, they are not native and will spread freely if unchecked.  I found one particular planting on the west side of Bodega Bay, just south of Bodega harbor, and it was humming with wild bees. 

I stood for a minute or so looking it over and saw mining bees, butterflies, but mostly bumble bees and not a single honey bee.  The bumble bees ranged in size and shape and I was able to identify what appeared to be yellow-faced bumblebees and California bumblebees.  It was refreshing to see so many native bees without a single honey bee as we do not yet know how severely native bee populations are impacted by the expansion of non-native honey bee colonies.  I admit that the video doesn't show the bees well, but you can see them flying from the forage site against the sky.

Keep an eye out for wild bees!