Serving communities of the Western San Juans

NICE LEGS – A native bee, which is a species of bumble bee, gathered pollen from a flower in Telluride. The orange sacks on its legs are where the pollen is carried by the bee. (Photo below by Amy Levek)

The Xerces Society
By Amy Levek

TELLURIDE, Aug. 2, 4:29 p.m. – Whether it’s the birds, bees or butterflies, all of our natural pollinators have taken a beating. Pesticides, urbanization and large-scale farming and other human activities wreak havoc on these species’ ability to do their job.

Nowadays, with entire honey-bee hives suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder, the status of native pollinators becomes even more critical.

And when bees and other pollinators suffer, so do all of the fruits, vegetables – and even flowers – on which humans rely for food, medicine and other things.

Imagine a world without native plants and food sources, not to mention wildflowers, lush forests and meadows.

Enter the Xerces Society, the international nonprofit organization based in Portland, Ore., whose purpose is to protect the diversity of life through invertebrate conservation (that means “insects”). The Society “advocates for invertebrates and their habitats by working with scientists, land managers, educators, and citizens on conservation and education projects.” Serving a range of groups that can have a profound impact on pollinators, Xerces provides vital information and resources for farmers, policymakers, parks and golf course managers and just about anyone else who works with the land.

Xerces was established born in 1971, soon after the world’s first Earth Day, which also gave birth to modern environmental awareness and protective legislation. Named after the Xerces Blue, an extinct California butterfly, the organization was the brainchild of Robert Michael Pyle, an insect conservation researcher.

Over the years, the Society has been “at the forefront of invertebrate conservation, harnessing the knowledge of scientists and the enthusiasm of local citizens” to both educate and conserve and restore habitats, according to its website. Whether protecting the winter home of monarch butterflies in California or working with villagers in Costa Rica to conserve forests by establishing butterfly parks, Xerces “fights for invertebrates and their habitat.” Former Telluride resident (and musician) Katharina Ullmann currently works with Xerces as project coordinator on the California Agricultural Pollinator Project in Yolo County, not far from Davis and Sacramento. Besides the Yolo County project, Xerces also works with policymakers, lobbying hard to include money for Colony Collapse Disorder research and research into native-bee conservation in the latest farm bill wending its way through Congress. The organization also provides hands-on support for “semi-grassroots programs” with the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, a consortium of over 90 public and private organizations collaborating on pollination issues.

The primary concern of the California Agricultural Pollinator Project is to help landowners restore native bee habitat. Billed as “a first of its kind effort to bring native bees back to large scale agriculture,” it gathers nonprofits, farmers and agencies together to research native pollinator habitat needs, and then applies that information to agricultural landscapes.

Such Xerces partners as U.C. Berkeley, with its cadre of scientists led by conservation biologist Claire Kremmen, use the information to “document the critical floral and nesting resources provided in both natural and areas and farmlands” to help determine the best ways to restore natural habitats and manage farmlands. The information will ultimately guide habitat restoration to increase the bee population and diversity to boost the pollination provided by wild bees.

Other groups, like the Audubon California’s Landowner Stewardship Program and the Center for Land-Based Learning, hold workshops and create pollinator habitat demonstration hedgerows, integrating pollinator conservation measures into bee restoration projects. The results support research and also show farmers and land managers the “how-to” of native habitats, creating healthier environments for bees and other pollinators.

“We’re working with the NRCS [the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service] to incorporate pollinators into their programs,” explains Ullmann. “Their grants have a land-based component – for instance, providing assistance in installing irrigation programs, sediment traps and the like – and we work with them on habitat restoration aspects to improve the bee habitat.” Additionally, Xerces is “working across the country to get pollination information into their [NRCS] programs.” Since the NRCS provides direct assistance to farmers and other landowners in counties throughout the nation, the potential for spreading the word about native bees’ value is really promising.

The program also includes monitoring the effectiveness of habitat restoration. We need to understand, says Ullmann, such things as: “Do bees come back? What bees come back? How many bees come back? What are the services that they provide? So that we can say to the farmer, ‘These came back and will have this effect on your watermelon.’”

Still in its first year, Ullmann and her coworkers are still amassing project data. “We expect, though, that the bees will return,” she says confidently.

Nevertheless, plenty of obstacles remain. For instance, agriculture these days is an industry consisting of huge farms, explains Ullmann, so that “good land is farmed and you often get a situation where field runs into field with no native hedgerows or weedy strips dividing crops.”

Farmers, furthermore, will use chemicals to control pests and weeds, and damaging insects, “but in doing so also impact the bee community.”

Spraying also means no weeds on the border of crops, points out Ullmann. “Whether native plants or weeds, vegetation on the edge of fields can provide food for pollinators and pollinators provide a service to the farmers.” Healthy habitat is crucial to carry pollinators through the ebb and flow of crop production, through times when agricultural products aren’t in flower. Even when they’re not working, bees still need to eat.

“The landscape out here is a monoculture from the bees’ perspective,” explains Ullmann, with early spring “really great for about two to three weeks, when the almonds are in bloom,” but after that, “there’s nothing for the bees until the tomatoes and sunflowers bloom.”

That leaves almost a months with no blooms to sustain the bees.

Honey bees come from all over the country to help pollinate the almond harvest. It’s a major source of income for many commercial beekeepers. Does this affect the potential for bringing the natives back into the pollination equation? “From Xerces’ perspective, we recognize how crucial honey bees are to agriculture. They are great pollinators,” notes Ullmann. “But native bees can act as insurance, so with honey bee problems, if their numbers drop because of Colony Collapse Disorder or other problems, farmers can be confident that some of the crops will be pollinated by native bees.”

Indeed, planting habitat hedgerows benefits both honey bees and natives. “Most bees will forage on hedgerows,” explains Ullmann. The plantings increase the food supply and, especially important for natives, also provide nesting sites, “helping to sustain bees over the course of the seasons.”

Ullmann cites research showing bees will provide a significant amount of crop pollination if their habitat needs are met, and that with the right plants, even a single strip of restored land has the potential to help bees flourish. However, because bees forage about fifty meters from their nest, “it will take some time for them to find the restored habitat.” With trees and shrubs taking two to five years to establish themselves, becoming lush, bushy and chockfull of the pollen and nectar that sustains bees, she emphasizes, however, that “it won’t happen overnight.”

But in the long term, it would nave an undeniably positive effect on the bee community, offering the bees more abundant food and greater diversity.

So, with such promising results, how receptive are farmers, whose land management is critical to native bees, to Xerces’ message?

“Farmers vary in their response, but for the most part are receptive – especially once they are provided with information about the role native bees can play in crop pollination,” explains Ullmann. “It’s often one step at a time.” Many landowners already know about beneficial insects (those that prey on harmful pests) and will plant seed blends that encourage pollinators.

Then, too, there’s education. “You talk with them,” Ullmann says, of members of the farming community, “and soon they start noticing bees.

“As soon as they become aware that there’s a proven impact on crop yield and crop quality, they become even more interested,” she says confidently. “Across the board, land owner reaction is the same. Once provided with information, they see native bees as a potential resource they could tap into.”

While she does not see landowners abandoning crops to plant natural habitat (obviously, “they need to produce for economic reasons and you can only put so much back into habitat”), Ullmann is encouraged that between NCRS’ push for habitat restoration and Xerces’ research and education services, farmers are starting to embrace habitat improvements for the natives. For the benefit of their watermelons – and to facilitate the return of our much-needed native bees.

©2007 Amy R. Levek

(Levek is currently working on a documentary film that examines the plight of bees. If you would like to support the project or be involved, call or email her at 970/708-1231 or