LIANE HANSEN, host:

While California lawmakers tend to the health of their citizens, others in the state are looking after the welfare of the bees. The number of bees in the United States has declined, especially in urban areas. Without these pollinators, spring flowers and fruit trees can't bloom. In the San Francisco Bay area, there's a new idea in the air. Bring back the wild native bees.

David Gorn has the story.

DAVID GORN: Walking through the small backyard of a home near downtown San Francisco, we come upon a strange sight - thousands and thousands of bees thick in the air.

Mr. ROGER MEYER(ph) (Beekeeper): Because it's a nice day the girls are kind of out playing around. I want to move back just a bit here.

GORN: That's beekeeper Roger Meyer of (unintelligible). He's actually a little skittish around the hives, because he's allergic to bee stings.

Mr. MEYER: They don't see you as a threat because this is the back of their hive. But as you can see, if you look up, you can see their flight path, and you can see where they all just kind of go in and out.

GORN: Bees are like nature's little delivery trucks, moving pollen from the male part of the flower, the stamen, over to the female part of the flower, the pistil. It's how plant seeds get fertilized. So if we want our world filled with flowers and fruit trees, Meier says, we need bees.

Mr. MEIER: They're incredibly beneficial to what's going on in our own microclimates. They're important for a lot of reasons, mainly for pollination purposes. They are the number one source of pollination within an urban area.

GORN: The survey of the bee population by the National Institute recently found that honeybees in America have declined by 30 percent in the past two decades. Honeybee hives have been destroyed by Varroa mites, and recently a new ailment called colony collapse disorder has killed entire colonies of bees.

On top of all that, in urban areas it's really hard to keep beehives at all. Because there are so many neighbors in the city, eventually someone complains, and the hives have to move. So now this traditional way to bring more bees into an area, with hives of European honeybees, may not be the answer.

(Soundbite of bees)

GORN: The solution may come from this small field across the bay, an island of green and yellow among miles of city blocks in Berkeley.

Unidentified Man: This is the way I usually do it.

Unidentified Woman #1: Ah, good.

Unidentified Man: Just dig them out like this.

GORN: Gordon Frankey(ph) is a professor of insect biology at U.C. Berkeley. At the Urban Bee Project in Berkeley, he's working with a small team of graduate students to transform this island of dirt into an oasis for wild, native bees.

Professor GORDON FRANKEY (University of California, Berkeley): Well, first of all, in the city of Berkeley we have approximately - we've already collected at least 82 species of bees just in the city of Berkeley or residential Berkeley, and of course if you add up all the bee species that we have in California, we have about 1,600 different species of bees that have been recorded.

GORN: Frankey explains that almost all of California's wild native bee species, such as bumblebees or squash bees, do not live in hives. They live alone, singly, sometimes nesting in tiny crevices of wood, and he says they can survive in an urban setting.

Mr. FRANKEY: So there actually are bees all over the cities. You just don't see them all the time because they come and go and they look - many of them are small, and urban areas, even though you may think of buildings and pavement and parking lots and cars and all of that, there's a lot of wild things in urban environments.

GORN: These wild, native bees, he says, are actually flying by us every day, crisscrossing the cities looking for food. The problem is that there are so few of them, so if you want these wild bees to not only survive but thrive, then they need more food, and that, says Frankey, could actually be the easy part.

Mr. FRANKEY: And basically when you plant the right plants, the bees will come to these flowers.

GORN: These flowers - poppies, salvia, coreopsis - are what the Urban Bee Project wants to get gardeners in urban areas to plant in their backyards to feed wild native bees. It's kind of a grassroots effort to bring back the native bee population. That means working with city projects, schools and nurseries to get more bee-friendly plants into large and small gardens.

Unidentified Woman #2: ...poking your holes...

GORN: In the coastal town of Pacifica, south of San Francisco, about a dozen kids are digging and planting a 4-H club bee garden. They're led by Mona Urbina(ph), who holds great hope in bringing back the resurgence in the native bee population.

Ms. MONA URBINA (4H-Club Project Instructor): These native bees have been here all the time. You know, they've been around all the time, before the European bees came, and they were doing their job at that time, so maybe they can pick up the slack.

GORN: The Urban Bee Project has a Web site with a list of flowers that wild native bees love, and it hopes its work with plant wholesalers and nurseries will encourage home gardeners all around the city to establish bee-friendly yards, creating a kind of green necklace of gardens in the urban landscape and setting up a long-term wild bee habitat in the big city.

For NPR News, I'm David Gorn.

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