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Bee Decline Threatens Farm Economy


Wild bees across the country are in a state of decline. A few may be headed for extinction. That's according to a new report from the National Academy of Sciences. The bees have been brought down by everything from sprawl to exotic diseases. And since bees help to pollinate many plants, that could cause problems for anybody in the following categories. See if this includes you: gardeners, farmers, people who like to eat. Experts say many of these bees could bounce back fairly quickly, if the habitats they used to live in are restored. As NPR's John Nielsen reports, that is already happening in some unexpected spots in California.

JOHN NIELSEN: One of those spots - and yes, this is a little bit ironic - is the Old City Cemetery in downtown Sacramento, a 40-acre plot that until a few years ago was rundown and barren, but then a native plant society came in and made it lush again. Now untold numbers of wild bee species flit back and forth between giant tilted headstones that date back to the Gold Rush.

Ms. SARAH GREENLEAF (University of California, Davis): It's just buzzing all the time. It's great.

NIELSEN: Sarah Greenleaf, a wild bee expert at the University of California at Davis, says it's not unusual for a city to serve as a refuge for wild bees, including some of the most important pollinating species.

Ms. GREENLEAF: Carpenter bees, bumble bees, leafcutter bees, sunflower bees, just a huge number of species.

NIELSEN: Greenleaf says wild bees would be a lot better off if cemeteries everywhere were covered with bee-friendly plants. Golf courses and suburban developments could also be transformed. Gordon Hinckey(ph), a wild bee expert at the University of California at Berkeley, say it's a fairly simple concept.

Mr. GORDON HINCKEY (University of California, Berkeley): That is, the more diverse these habitats are, the more stable the populations are that depend on them.

NIELSEN: Hinckey tends a garden full of bee-friendly plants near the UC Berkeley campus. It's attracted at least 36 species of wild bee since 2003.

(Soundbite of buzzing)

NIELSEN: One of them is a small leafcutter bee that Hinckey has just pulled off a flower. Holding the bee's legs, he walks over and sticks the insect under my nose.

Mr. HINCKEY: You can pet this bee, if you'd like.

NIELSEN: I will pet the bee. My God!

(Soundbite of laughter)

NIELSEN: I jumped up into the air when this male stingless bee shivered underneath my fingers. Hinckey says that's just the kind of reaction that could thwart bee restoration efforts. The problem is that lots of people seem to be convinced that they'll get stung all the time if wild bees make a comeback in their neighborhood. In fact, very few wild bees even have stingers, he says.

Hinckey hopes the new report will begin to change these kinds of attitudes, by helping people understand how important wild bees are. For example, they're crucial to hundreds of thousands of species of plants, including some commercially important fruits and vegetables.

But attitude adjustments won't be enough to put the wild bees back where they're needed most. For that, you might need bulldozers.

(Soundbite of a bulldozer)

NIELSEN: That's what they're using on this farm in the northern San Joaquin Valley. Here, activists from non-profit groups like the National Audubon Society are turning a mile-long ditch back into the wooded stream it used to be.

Scott Hoffman Black, director of a group called the Xerces Society, says he hopes to start a trend.

Mr. SCOTT HOFFMAN BLACK (Xerces Society): It is one of the first projects of its kind, where we're really integrating pollinators at every level.

Unidentified Man: That's right.

Mr. BLACK: So we've integrated pollinator plants. We'll be integrating habitat features for pollinators for nesting sites. And then we'll be testing to see whether these landscape features actually improve the habitat for pollinators.

NIELSEN: If this project works, this stretch of land will someday crawl, not only with wild bees but with hummingbirds, native quail and other animals. And a new report from the National Academy of Sciences says the project needs to work. The report says the government should start paying farmers to build more wild bee habitat. It also calls for extensive surveys of the nation's wild bees; that will help scientists find out more about where the wild bees are still hanging on and where they aren't.

John Nielsen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Nielsen covers environmental issues for NPR. His reports air regularly on NPR's award-winning news magazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition. He also prepares documentaries for the NPR/National Geographic Radio Expeditions series, which is heard regularly on Morning Edition. Nielsen also occasionally serves as the substitute host for several NPR News programs.