What comes to mind when you hear the word “bee?” Do you think of some pesky, stinging insect? Or do you see the bigger picture, appreciating how absolutely amazing they are and how much they contribute to the natural ecosystem? Sure, they produce honey. But there’s a lot more to bees than that. In fact, bees are among the most beneficial members of the animal community. They’re responsible for pollinating a long list of fruits, vegetables and nuts—crops that the entire world depends upon. Without bees, we humans would be in big trouble. But do you know what? Bees themselves are in big trouble. Their populations have been plummeting in recent years—a problem that’s almost exclusively human-caused. So they need our help.
What’s this got to do with Oakland Zoo? Well, the zoo has been considering starting its own bee program, similar to the ones at Happy Hollow Zoo, Coyote Point Museum, and the San Francisco Zoo. So recently, several members of the zoo’s education staff went on a field trip in Redwood City to visit the home of a man who knows quite a bit about bees. In fact, he’s a beekeeper. Richard Baxter of Round Rock Honey has been raising honeybees for 25 years now and even holds classes on the subject. On February 15th, Education Animal Interpretive Program Manager Felicia Walker and Olivia Lott, the lead Education Specialist for our Creek and Garden programs, attended one of these three-hour beekeeping courses. I recently had a chance to meet with Felicia and find out what she learned.
For one thing, honeybees are not native to this area. Although many types of bees can be found here, the species that produce honey originated in Africa before migrating to Europe and Asia. Then in the 1600s, Europeans introduced them to America. They’ve done very well here until recently, when environmental threats started seriously reducing their numbers.
The most critical of these threats is the use of pesticides—both in agriculture and at home. That’s often the problem with chemical-based solutions to problems: While trying to control harmful pests, we often harm beneficial animals in the process. For this reason Mr. Baxter uses strict organic methods in his beekeeping operations. In fact for the last 25 years, he’s been doing everything he can to ensure that bee populations rebound, like setting up additional bee hives for friends and at various public places in the area. He also sells the products that his own bees produce, such as beeswax, pollen, and honey as well as household products like soap, lotion, candles and lip balm that are made from these materials.
The zoo’s education department hopes to make its own contribution by installing bee hives here at the zoo and in the surrounding park sometime in the future, utilizing the existing floral gardens as a natural environment. The zoo hopes to hold classes to teach the public about the importance of bees, for example through pollinator workshops that demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between various animals and the plant community.
Given the important role that bees play in our world you might be asking, “What can I do to help?” Mr. Baxter suggests three things that people can do. 1) Don’t use pesticides in your garden. 2) Become a beekeeper. 3) Join a local beekeeping guild. Remember, by advocating for bees you not only help them, but you also help all of us as well. So stay tuned to Oakland Zoo’s website for news. Hopefully you’ll be seeing some busy little additions to our zoo family soon!