Summer surprise: A native bee sanctuary in my backyard

Eric Holst

When my family moved into our Sacramento home eight years ago, I set about renovating the backyard, which is anchored by a large eastern red oak that provides tremendous shade during the hot Sacramento Valley summers. As I worked to realize my vision of pastoral bliss, an unspoken but guiding principle was that every square inch of soil would eventually be covered with something: a vegetable garden, ornamentals, grass, patio, mulch, a deck built with reclaimed redwood.

As I labored away, year after year, a section of our side yard was left on its own, untended. And despite my best efforts to direct my three kids to the various amenities I had provided, every April they were drawn to that unimproved patch of dirt.

It was there that a population of native ground nesting bees found habitat. As soon as the soil warmed and the adjacent flowering shrub bloomed, the bees would emerge from their nests in the ground and set about pollinating the shrub. My kids would spend hours observing these stingless bees, which are much smaller than honeybees, about the size of a house fly.

My dog, Tule, hanging out in the bee habitat. Photo credit: Eric Holst

That little piece of native bee habitat sits in one of the sunnier parts of our yard, so my thought was to eventually turn it into yet another vegetable patch. But over time, my plans changed. As I learned more about the bees, I came to realize that the soil they occupied was among the rarest and most rapidly declining habitats in the region. The instinct of people like me to cover over bare soil with buildings, vegetable plots, roads and what not was causing the decline of native ground nesting bees. And these bees provide a service by pollinating both wild and cultivated plants. This ecosystem service is particularly important these days, given the decline in honeybee populations due to the still somewhat mysterious colony collapse disorder.

So my plan for this little five foot by five foot patch is now to leave it just as it is. It is now officially a native bee sanctuary — to remain so as long as I have control of the issue. And there’s an added benefit: this plot of earth is the favorite sunbathing spot of my dog Tule.

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