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Friends of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden
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The garden is located at the intersection of Wildcat Canyon Road and South Park Drive in Tilden Regional Park near Berkeley, CA


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July 2014

It’s the Bee’s Knees!

Leaf cutter bee
Leaf-cutter bee in action

Where do these sayings we have heard for so many years come from? The most popular explanation for “the bee’s knees” is from the 1920s: flapper slang for “excellence of the highest quality.” Flapper slang was quirky—often silly—and included other expressions like “the cat’s whiskers” and “the cat’s pajamas.” Apparently there was also a very celebrated champion Charleston dancer named Bee Jackson who appeared on the scene in 1924; there’s some speculation that the phrase referred to her continuously and much-viewed knees. In reference to actual bees, many carry pollen on parts of their hind legs and bring it back to the hive to provide nourishment, some of which is turned into honey. So the saying could be describing the delightfully divine sweetness of that delicacy. Bees don’t, however, have knees.

I have recently become fascinated with watching the many different types of bees we have in the Regional Parks Botanic Garden, and I wanted to learn more about them. So I took a class called California Native Bees: Biology, Ecology, and Identification, offered by the Friends of the Jepson Herbarium. For all of you plant enthusiasts who enjoy keying the minutia of flower parts, keying bees takes it to another level!

Due to the complexities of these incredible little critters’ highly specialized moving parts, there are very few people in the state who are capable of keying bees to the species level. I was fortunate to be instructed by several of them, and I can say after many hours of unsuccessfully trying to key bees just to the genus level, I am vastly appreciative of their expertise. The only way I eventually was correct on any specimen was to key backwards to see where I went wrong. But I wasn’t just trying to get a correct ID, I simply couldn’t drag myself away from the microscope. Bees are unbelievably amazing to look at, especially when considering their overall functionality.

Ground nesting bee
Ground-nesting bee

There are some 1600 native bees in California, and most of them are solitary, not social. “Social" refers to living in a colony, building a hive, etc., and “solitary” means a single female lays her eggs in a nest in the ground. Sometimes these solitary bees may be gregarious; that is, there may be many single nests in a given area, but they will rarely interact.

Most common names for bees are easy to decipher because they are descriptive: Carpenter bees live in wood, leaf-cutter bees have large mandibles (mouth or eating parts) and use leaves to line their nests, mason bees use saliva to make mud or glue sand and pebbles together, miner bees drill or dig into the ground, carder bees use wooly or fuzzy plant parts to line their nests, and so on.

Carpenter bee


Leaf cutter bee
Leaf-cutter bee in flight

Cuckoo bee
Cuckoo bee


There is another group of bees, called cuckoo bees, that is parasitic: They will lay their eggs in other bees’ nests, often eating the nest-builders’ eggs and thus ensuring that only their own offspring will survive.
Sometimes the cuckoo bee will wait for the owner of the nest to emerge, then sneak in and lay her eggs on an inner wall of a cell, out of sight so the nest builder won’t notice.

In reference to pollination, there are generalist bees and specialist bees. Specialist bees may pollinate only one type of plant, some even specializing down to the species level!

Bees pollinate at least a third of the world’s food supply, and bee pollination is a multi-billion-dollar industry. However, the European honeybee is not nearly as efficient in pollinating as our native bees are, and honeybees are attracted to European weeds, which they also pollinate.

There has been a lot of news lately about our declining bee populations, and bee enthusiasts everywhere are trying to educate and encourage both the public and private sectors to plant native plants that will bring in and keep our native bees thriving. One of the teachers at the class I attended brought some of his UC Berkeley students who are involved in a study that works with Brentwood farmers to see how the native bee population (and thereby pollination and farm productivity) will increase when native plants or hedgerows that attract bees are planted in the growing fields. So far the results are impressive.

Many factors can contribute to the decline of beneficial pollinators and other insects in our communities. Obviously, pesticides, fertilizers, and unnatural chemicals can contaminate plants, soil, and water. But I didn’t realize that some nurseries treat known host plants (plants that are food for insects and their larvae) with systemic chemicals to stop the plants from being chomped on by, say, caterpillars that feed on them. Those plants retain the systemic chemicals for a long time and cannot serve as host plants even after you take them home from the nursery. Seeds may also be treated for the same reason, so be sure to ask if any of the materials you buy have been treated with anything. These systemically treated nursery plants may also be plants that bees would otherwise be attracted to.


There are many reasons besides monetary gain to promote native bees over non-native bees. The honeybee decline due to Colony Collapse Disorder (named for the mass disappearance of honeybees from hives) is alarming, but because our native bee pollinators are solitary, this disorder does not affect them. European honeybees are also more aggressive than their native counterparts, and their hybridization with the African honeybee is very worrisome. The subspecies that arises as a result of this hybrid pairing is even more aggressive and is rapidly spreading throughout the U.S. and increasing its numbers exponentially, thereby becoming far more invasive. Africanized honeybees are more apt to swarm and protect their nests from as far away as 100 feet. This is problematic to humans and animals alike.

africanizedBeeAfricanized honeybee (left) and European honeybee. Normally they can't be differentiated by eye.

In recent studies, it was found that just 500 individuals of one of our very important crop pollinators, the blue orchard bee, can do the job of 40,000 European honeybees! And if you have tomatoes in your garden, native bumblebees will do a great job of helping them produce a bigger crop and larger fruits by “buzz pollinating”—vibrating their bodies and causing pollen to escape more freely. Honeybees don’t buzz pollinate and won’t visit certain types of crops at all because they contain no nectar. It has also been shown that farms near open wildlands seem to have a greater diversity and population of bees than those that aren’t near wildlands.

Blue Orchard Bee
Blue orchard bee


Bumble beeBumblebee resting in California poppy

A good way to invite bees to nest is to provide some bare ground for them to nest in, so don’t mulch every square inch of the soil in your yard. There are even kits you can make or purchase to provide housing for bees in hollow plant stems or hollow wooden tubes. Also, there are many websites that offer information about native bees and gardening for those inclined to Bee Happy!

—Cat Daffer


U.C. Berkeley’s Urban Bee Lab website ( is a great resource for learning about our fascinating native bees as well as about gardening and farming for bees. And this October, Heyday will publish California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists by Gordon W. Frankie, Robbin W. Thorp, Rollin E. Coville, and Barbara Ertter. This book will be a must-have resource for anyone interested in native bees and native bee gardening.

Cat Daffer has been a gardener at the Regional Parks Botanic Garden for about seven years.  She has worked in several parts of the garden: the Rainforest, Franciscan, Channel Islands, and Desert sections. She is now responsible for the Redwood and Santa Lucia sections. Her interest in plants started at a very young age, when she first started identifying wildflowers on Carson Pass, where she spent many summers hiking and enjoying the outdoors.



July 10-14, 2014

A special trip led by Glenn Keator, PhD, and Joe Dahl to benefit the Regional Parks Botanic Garden
offered by the Friends of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden

$450 trip fee includes a $200 tax-deductible donation to the garden

Conifer forest and rock gardens on the flanks of Mount Eddy   
Photo by Glenn Keator

One of the most diverse mountain ranges in California, the Klamath Mountains combine a rugged landscape, varied and intricate geology, and the meeting place of plants from Oregon, the Sierra, and the north Coast Ranges. One botanical treasure after another resides in these mountains in a wide array of plant communities including mixed conifer forests, mountain meadows, serpentine bogs, and rock gardens of cushion-forming alpines. Expect to see buckwheats and lewisias, rare conifers, insectivorous plants, heathers and their relatives, bluebells, daisies, orchids, and more.




Upcoming Classes
A click here will take you to a full description of the class as well as the class registration form

Saturday, July 5, 10 am-3 pm

Marin's Mid-summer Endemic Plants

Space Available

Thursday-Monday, July 10-14

Montane Meadows, Serpentine Seeps, and Alpine Wildflowers: Garden Fund-raising Trip

Space Available

Saturday, July 26, 10 am-3 pm

The Amazing World of Lichens

Space Available

Sunday, September 28, 9:30 am-4 pm

Modern Textile Design with California Native Plant Dyes

Space Available

Friday-Sunday, October 3-5

Weekend on the Mendocino Coast

Space Available

Sunday mornings, October 12-December 7

Learning to Identify Plants by Key

Space Available
Illustration/Photo Credits

This is Not Photography

Leaf cutter bee in action

Rob Cruickshank

Ground-nesting bee, leaf-cutter bee, cuckoo bee

Kolby Kirk

Carpenter bee

©Cat Daffer

Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service

Africanized honeybee

Seabrooke Leckie

Blue orchard bee

Glenn Kreator

Conifer forest and rock gardens on the flanks of Mount Eddy