Gearhead: Learn about California's most unusual native bees

Right now, smack in the middle of summer, is a wonderful time to learn about the native bees that visit your yard, zip around your neighborhood, or collect pollen from plants along the trails you hike.

There are a great many more California native bee species than you might realize. According to UC Berkeley professor and California native bee expert Gordon Frankie, the U.S. is home to approximately 4,000 undomesticated or native bee species. More than one-quarter of those, roughly 1,600 and mostly native, inhabit California. They're a widely-varied lot.

Some bees are tiny, and others are large. Some bees nest underground, while others prefer woody twigs. Leafcutter bees cut leaf semi-circles, using them to line their brood cells. Mason bees surround their larvae with mud. Yellow-faced bees, which resemble wasps, make nests in hollow plant stems. Like cuckoo birds, cuckoo bees lay their eggs in the cells of other bees. Digger bees are fast fliers and always busy.

Here are two books that can help you determine what kind of bees are putting a buzz in your life:

California Bees & Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday Press): Written by Frankie and three other bee/botany experts (Robbin Thorp, Rollin Coville and Barbara Ertter), this book takes a close look at 22 of the state's most common bee classifications. It delves into bee behaviors, preferred flowers, and other characteristics, and also discusses bee-friendly plants and how to grow them. 304 pages, 200 full-color photos. $28.

Field Guide to the Common Bees of California (University of California Press): Written by Gretchen LeBuhn, professor of biology at San Francisco State University, this guidebook helps you identify California's most common bees, and also offers a solid overview of both native bee and honey bee biology. Emphasis is placed on how bees affect our lives and the food we eat; suggestions given for supporting bees in our own back yards. Includes 57 color illustrations, along with photographs and tables. $21.95.

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