Gardening helps protect threatened bees in Arizona

Key pollinators in Arizona faced a rough summer, but community efforts can help them thrive.

Arizona is home to the second-most diverse bee population in the
country, according to pollination ecologist and bee specialist Stephen
Buchmann, who said more than 1,300 native bee species reside in the
state. The desert landscape also hosts a large population of honeybees,
which, while not native to Arizona, are still important pollinators.

“Honeybees are sort of generalist pollinators, and they’re what we
depend on for most of our agricultural pollination in this state,”
Buchmann said, “but there are an awful lot of unsung heroines of
pollination, and they’re the ground- and twig-nesting bees that we
have.”

Most native bees are xerophiles, typically resilient to the hot
temperatures and dry climate of the Sonoran Desert, but urban expansion
threatens their habitats, Buchmann said. They tend to nest underground
in abandoned burrows from other animals and dead or hollowed-out plants.
Urban expansion limits their habitat options and puts more space
between the bees and the water and food sources they need access to.

Buchmann said that people can attract native bees to their gardens
and help them thrive by planting native, desert-acclimated wildflowers.

“We have a big, big diversity of desert wildflowers,” he said. “Not
all of them bloom every year, but bee larvae and pupae developing
underground can wait years to match the rain and other signals that
their wildflower and perennial food plants are getting perfect.”

At the 2023 Arizona Honeybee Festival in November, put on at Paradise
Valley Community College by the Arizona Backyard Beekeepers
Association, beekeepers shared advice with community members on how to
support Arizona’s bees.

According to Mike Hills, a master gardener who presented at the
festival, most plants that benefit native bees will also benefit
honeybees.

“They’ll feed on most anything that’s gotten nectar or pollen with it,” he said.

Flowers like desert bluebells, penstemon and sunflowers are native to
Arizona and do well in the desert climate, providing bees with reliable
sources of nectar. Planting them is a good low-maintenance way for
community members to support the local bees, as they tend to use less
water.

Native bee species are usually equipped to deal with intense heat,
but nonnative honeybees aren’t as equipped to survive in harsh
conditions.

Honeybee hives are made of wax, so when it gets hot outside, bees
have to constantly supply the hive with water to cool it down. According
to Cricket Aldridge, ABBA’s director, the record-breaking heat Phoenix
experienced over the summer exacerbated this issue. With water access
limited, the bees couldn’t cool down their hives in response to the
intense heat.

“The problem is when they go to get the water, the people kill the
bees,” she said, noting pools and lakes are common sources of bees’
water. “They never make it back to their hive with the water and their
colony dies.”

Aldridge said to help the bees access water, people should create
water stations outside their homes so bees can have reliable access to
the water they need to cool down their homes.

“You can get a bowl of water with marbles so they don’t drown in a birdbath,” she said. “Anything away from your pool.”

Aldridge hopes that events like the honeybee festival can educate
community members about ways to help protect Arizona’s bees and their
role in the ecosystem instead of being afraid of them.

“We are part of the ecosystem, we just have to own up to it,” she said.