City, Cal envision a bee-friendly Berkeley

A coalition of students and residents is creating quite a buzz for more bee-friendly habitats in Berkeley.

UC Berkeley undergrad Taylor Rein began the push on campus by spearheading a bid to make Cal the first in the UC system to join Bee Campus USA, a network of colleges and universities that creates safe and suitable habitats for pollinators. It does this by limiting pesticide application and replacing under-used infrastructure like grass medians with native plants.

An environmental science major with a soft spot for the plight of the bumblebee, Rein has been working with CALPIRG, campus head groundskeeper Theron Klose, Herbicide Free Cal, and entomologist Pete Oboyski, to create more bee habitat.

“Pollinators form a remarkable society of their own, one which displays inherent beauty and forms a distinct thread in the wonderful collection of life,” said Rein. “I am struck by awe in spring by the several colonies of native bees on campus and the surge of honey bees foraging in the summer that I find it hard not to be fascinated.”

Bee Campus operates in tandem with Bee City USA , a parent organization that shares the same goals. Rein has been in conversation with city council members Kate Harrison and Rigel Robinson, along with Transition Berkeley, to extend the same practices from campus to city.

Clockwise from left: Taylor Rein, Migueljose Baeza, Johanna Laraway, Lily Leveque and dog Koodles. Photo: Courtesy Taylor Rein

Bees have been hit hard in recent years by all the usual culprits — pesticides, habitat loss, windscreens — and also some new ones. Honeybees have been especially devastated by colony collapse disorder. U.S beekeepers lost an estimated 40% of the nation’s domestic hives since fall 2018.

Aside from sweetener, honeybees deliver an estimated $20 billion benefit annually to the U.S. economy. Pollination has become so lucrative it’s even led to bee-rustling. But the goal of both Bee Campus and Bee City is to create habitat that can benefit all pollinators, especially native insects.

The number one threat to all wild species is human-caused habitat destruction. Though the loss tends to make headlines only when threatening large and charismatic species. But because such destruction is generally framed as affecting remote and generally overseas locations — which is to say, not in our backyards — many global citizens fail to grasp their own capacity to do something about habitat loss in their own environments.

Pollinators face many of the same existential threats as megafauna like orangutans and tigers, if at a smaller scale. Which also gives reason for optimism, as restoring insect habitat comes at a similarly minute scale and minimal cost. Entomologist Peter Oboyski, the assistant director and collections manager of Cal’s Essig Museum of Entomology, pointed out a section of restored pollinator habitat along Strawberry Creek on campus as an example.

“It’s something I feel like anyone can get behind without any real controversy,” he said. “Who doesn’t want pretty flowers in their yard? Who doesn’t want to encourage wildlife?”

Oboyski wants to see more habitat for native bees and pollinators, which means more than just flowers. Honeybees are generalists, which is to say floral omnivores, perfectly happy to make do with just about any blossom. Whereas many native bees are specialists, feeding off only a few species of plants, and requiring different nesting substrates, such as twigs or bare earth, to procreate.

“The challenge is thinking about all the different kinds of pollinators that are out there and also what it takes to maintain that kind of landscape,” said Oboyski. For native bees, a rose garden can be a food desert.

“You don’t need much,” said Carla Ticconi, a member of the Community Environmental Advisory Commission who has been working with both Taylor Reins and the City Council to make Berkeley part of Bee City. (Though Ticconi spoke with Berkeleyside as a concerned resident, and not on behalf of the CEAC.)

“Very small pieces of land, very small things can make an actual difference,” she said. Ticconi traded out her home’s parking space for half tub planters and has been working with a neighbor to replace part of their driveway with a bioswale, a rock lined depression fringed with native plants that provides a catch and filter for rainwater and doubles as wildlife habitat. As a permeable surface, bioswales allow rainfall to enter the water table, and require neither mowing nor irrigation.

“We’re doing a lot of work on bioswales,” said councilmember Kate Harrison. “The city is under orders from the state to reduce things flowing to the bay. These bioswales help with that, to help meet our compliance requirement.”

On June 18, the city passed an ordinance that all new development of ten thousand square feet or more of impermeable surface — such as housing or a parking lot — must include a green stormwater management system, such as a bioswale. Harrison sees it as a minimal ask to add more insect-friendly plants to the effort. “We know about bee die off and what’s happening in the loss of natural habitats,” she said.

Harrison identified a few locations of city maintained property that could be replaced with a bioswale and insect habitat. “Along Sacramento, for example, that would be an exciting opportunity,” she said.

“An estimated 30% of our landmass in Berkeley is covered in concrete,” she said. “In addition to wanting to produce more housing, we want that to go along with more of these kinds of spaces.”

“There’s multiple benefits, and it’s beautiful,” said Harrison.

Bioswales may just be one of the better applications of trickle-down theory that, when coupled with good pollinator habitat, could make Berkeley an even safer city to just bee.

Interested in planting your own pollinator habitat? Entomologist Peter Oboyski recommends consulting the Xerces Society guide to native California plants suitable for home gardens.