At first glance, the best chance at salvation for dozens of wild, native bee species is a rather scraggly sight: clumps of what look to the untrained eye to be dusty weeds, whether scattered around the new visitor’s plaza at North Campus Open Space, atop the bluffs above Campus Point or in the garden boxes beneath the stained-glass windows of St. Michael’s University Church in Isla Vista.

But upon closer examination, a rainbow of colors explodes from these native plants: deep purple hues on floppy white datura flowers, shocks of vibrant orange on California poppies, flashes of pastel pink on wild roses, sherbetlike oranges on monkey flowers, subtle lavenders on the puffy caterpillar phacelia, radiant pops of gold on the deerweed.

Inside many of these flowers, patient observers can spot an array of insects — often no bigger than a couple millimeters, but sometimes more imposing, even lumbering in clumsy flight. Some will be flies, and some may be beetles, but many of these flying bugs are wild bees, all working hard to collect pollen from these plants to bring back to their underground dens, pollinating along the way.

Much buzz is made about the scary trajectory of honeybees, the ubiquitous domestic species brought by Europeans to the New World centuries ago for candle wax, honey and crop pollination, an especially important honeybee usage today. In short, they’re dying in mass amounts — nearly 50% of American beekeeper hives died between April 2020 and April 2021 — and no one knows exactly why. That’s a big problem for the human diet, in which one out of every three bites of food comes from something that honeybees pollinated.

But even less understood is the status and fate of native bee species, of which 1,600 live in California — a healthy fraction of the 4,000 total known to be in the United States and the more than 20,000 species worldwide. Many scientists believe that native bee populations are in a deeper dive than honeybees, with as many as a quarter in severe risk of extinction. This decline could have disastrous effects on the ecosystem at large, putting numerous plant and animal species into a tailspin. Wild bees may also be playing significant roles in our food production system, though that too remains a bit of a mystery.

 

PLAN BEE

UC Santa Barbara is not taking this sting lightly. Under a range of initiatives, students and faculty alike are monitoring which bees are on campus while planting pollinator gardens, all in hopes of combating the loss of coastal sage scrub and other ecosystems that have been paved over during past decades. And this year, the campus joined a coalition of 13 universities nationwide in what may be the most ambitious research project ever regarding wild bee populations. Altogether, these efforts are improving ecosystems and, perhaps most importantly, inspiring students to get engaged in solutions that they can actually see working.

“It is easy to see a tangible difference,” said Alyssa Jain, a third-year student who grew up afraid of honeybees in San Jose. The environmental studies major became enthralled with native bee species at UCSB, where more than 70 have been identified. Nearly two years ago, she started Plan Bee, which has developed gardens at St. Michael’s, at the UCSB Greenhouse and Garden Project around Harder Stadium, and around the faculty housing developments of West Campus and Storke Road.

“With these gardens, the plants will bloom and we can show other students that there are more bees there and different species of bees,” said Jain, who led a tour of the sites this past April and plans for more. “It’s really rewarding to have an impact that you can see.”

Jain got involved in Plan Bee as part of UCSB’s Environmental Leadership Incubator program. That’s where she met Katja Seltmann, a parasitic wasp researcher by background who is now the director of the Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration. Upon arriving at UCSB in 2016, Seltmann saw the opportunity to use bees as a vehicle, both for supporting habitat restoration projects and for providing a positive outlet to students who wanted to make a difference.

“As an entomologist, it’s commonly a struggle to get people excited about insects,” said Seltmann, whose parents supported her bug bewilderment while she grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I love insects, and if other people knew what I do, they would love them just as much. At least with bees, the messaging is out there and people are starting to understand their importance for humans and our planet.”

Photo: CA Academy of Sciences

The green sweat bee “is so different than what people think of a bee,” Etter said. The females are metallic and have no stripes.

UCSBEES

Seeing bees as a “gateway bug” like monarch butterflies and ladybugs, Seltmann grasped the opportunity to turn UCSB into a hub for bee buzz. “Working with bees is a place where undergrads can make real change,” she said. “It’s hard for them to always think that the world is in some kind of spiral to devastation. But with bees and the urban environment in California, we do have the opportunity to make a difference.”

First Seltmann launched UCSBees, a research project that includes students tracking native plants and insects both on campus and far beyond, including Santa Cruz Island and the Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve. Since it started in November 2018, more than 330 students and community members have tallied 4,300 observations of 460 species, from yellow-faced bumblebees to valley carpenter bees, all posted on the iNaturalist website.

With Plan Bee in full swing, Seltmann and Jain also worked to get UCSB certified as a Bee Campus USA, one of 139 across the country that have committed to reducing pesticide use while restoring native plant populations. That was a natural fit.

“Our campus is really different than a lot of campuses in the country,” said Seltmann, explaining that all of the Cheadle Center’s many restoration projects already include extensive wildflower planting, and that pesticide use on campus was limited years earlier. “UCSB is very sensitive to sustainability, and very sensitive to the fact that we’re in an endangered coastal ecosystem.”

With the Cheadle Center’s North Campus Open Space restoration project, in particular, the campus already had 350 acres of pollinator garden to tout.

On the research front, Seltmann secured a major grant from the National Science Foundation for a data-collection project, Big Bee, on which UCSB is partnering with a dozen campuses and institutions, including the California Academy of Sciences and Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Set on developing more information about wild bee species, what makes them distinct and how those differences might aid in resilience to climate change, Big Bee’s goal is to collect detailed digital images of more than half a million bees over the next four years. Then scientists can analyze traits such as hairiness to see whether that is helping or hurting in a shifting environment.

“We really have very limited knowledge as to why they’re declining because many of our bees do very different things in these ecosystems and they are affected by environmental factors differently,” said Seltmann. “Big Bee is looking to address this through imaging bees.”

 

 

Katja Seltmann: “Right now, my favorite bee is Hylaeus masked bee,” said Seltmann. Unlike bees that carry pollen on their bodies, these carry it in small crops, or honey stomachs, inside their mouths. Their masked faces also look like “tiny little superheroes,” she said. And don’t forget about the Crotch’s bumblebee, which is federally listed as an endangered species and prominent on campus.

 

The Packer Lab - Bee Tribes of the World

Alyssa Jain: The “bright electric green color” of sweat bees is beautifully striking, said Jain, but she also likes the squash bee, which looks a bit like the honeybee and mainly pollinates squash species with a long antenna. “They were the first bees I learned about,” said Jain. Denise Knapp: She’s a fan of the cuckoo bee, which is a parasitic species that “takes over the other bees’ nests” by sneaking in and laying their own eggs. Also known as kleptoparasites, they lack pollen-collecting hair.

 

Kylie Etter: The green sweat bee “is so different than what people think of a bee,” Etter said. The females are metallic and have no stripes. “I also like longhorn bees,” said Etter. “Their long antennae go down to the back of their abdomens.”

 

GETTING HANDS-ON WITH BEES

The region’s bee work isn’t limited to the UCSB campus. One major partner is the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, which is also restoring native plant populations, monitoring wild bee populations and assessing biodiversity across a range of landscapes — from pollinator surveys for the U.S. Navy on San Clemente Island to tracking habitat rejuvenation following wildfires in the Los Padres National Forest.

“We’re using insects as indicators to how well we have rebuilt the habitat since insects respond really quickly, they’re diverse and they’re uniquely tied to the plants,” said Denise Knapp, the garden’s director of conservation and research.

Knapp’s colleague Kylie Etter is monitoring community gardens around town, such as those near La Cumbre Junior High and on the Santa Barbara City College campus. “We’re looking at what wild bees are visiting these public spaces,” said Etter, who is getting a better handle on how wild bees work as pollinators even for food plants. “There are some plants, like the tomato plant, that need buzz pollinators,” explained Etter, noting that honeybees don’t do the sort of shaking required to free up the tomato pollen. Added Knapp, “Native bees can be better at pollinating than honeybees can, because honeybees are generalists.”

The Botanic Garden is a great place to get hands-on with bees, as volunteers are constantly working on bees and other insects both in the field and in the labs. “Bugs are so much work; you spend one day in the field and 10 days in the lab,” said Knapp. Included in that work: “beautifying the bees,” in which they’re cleaned, dried and made pretty enough to be shown off as specimens. “We have to give them the diva treatment,” she laughed.

For students like Jain, bees are proving to be a path into caring for the natural world and embarking on potential careers in science. “There are so many species of wild bees,” said Jain, who’s considering graduate school after she graduates. “It’s a whole exciting world that you can step into and learn about.”

Though the momentum is strong, Seltmann isn’t quite satisfied yet. “We want to do more public outreach. We can plant a broader array of plants. We can create even more concentrated pollinator gardens,” she said. “Everyone can always do better.”

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