WHERE WOULD WE BE WITHOUT BEES?

Do you know where your food comes from? How farmers can have seeds to plant year after year? Why you would have no almonds or apples if there were no bees? There’s a cool, new exhibit at the Reid Park Zoo, The Pollinator Garden, which can help answer these questions.   

Ever stop to consider how plants reproduce? They can’t get together to fertilize like animals can. Instead, they produce flowers and use outside “helpers” to transfer pollen (sperm) to ovary (where the eggs are). As a bee moves from flower to flower, some of the pollen she has collected from the flower’s anthers (male parts) on her furry body and legs rubs off on a stigma, the flower’s female part, which is connected by a tube to the ovary. This is called pollination. The helpers are rewarded with sweet nectar. The fertilized eggs become seeds, which can then grow into new plants. 

The types of flowers that plants produce are no accident. They display certain colors, shapes, sizes, and aromas to attract particular “helpers.” Other than wind, which doesn’t care, pollinators range from bats to butterflies. There are even some stinky flowers that smell like something is rotting. The pollinator? Flies! But far and away the most widespread and prolific pollinators are BEES. In fact, one out of every three food items we eat relies on bees.

Now, here’s some more awesome news: here in southern Arizona we live in one of the three Bee Capitals of the world! The other two are in deserts of Israel and Africa. We are surrounded by stupendous bee biodiversity. Almost all of our native bees are “solitary.” Each female makes her hole in the ground or in woody stalks and branches to lay her eggs. The largest in our area is the carpenter bee, a gentle giant. The smallest is the tiny perdita. In between are hundreds of different species.

The bee that is most familiar to people is the honey bee. They’re called “social bees” because they live and work communally, creating hives which the “queen” supplies with eggs. And together these bees produce a lot of honey. However, you may be surprised to learn that they are NOT native to North or South America. They were brought here, along with many familiar plants and animals, by early settlers from Europe. For centuries, they have been a mainstay of beekeepers, orchards, and gardeners.

The organization of the hive consists of the queen who lays over a thousand eggs per day; the drones (males), having hatched from unfertilized eggs, who mate with virgin queens; the workers (females), who care for the hive and the nursery; and the foraging/scouting workers who are also females. Only the females have stingers. The stinger is actually a modified ovipositor (egg-laying organ) and is barbed. 

A swarm, basically, is made up of traveling, hiveless bees. One is formed when the queen of a hive ages and her egg production slows down. The hive chooses a new, young queen to replace her. The old queen leaves the hive with a group of support bees in search of a favorable location to build a new hive. It’s an amazing process. When the queen gets tired, she lands on, for example, a branch. All the other members of her retinue land on and around her and around and on top of one another, creating a writhing, humming mass. They stay in that location for perhaps three or four days. During that time, a few individual bees go forth to find potential hive sites. When each returns, she does a “bee dance” to convey what she has found. Ultimately, one bee does a sufficiently convincing dance. At that point they all disengage themselves from one another and fly off together to build their new hive. 

Generally, the bees of a swarm do not pose a threat to humans. They’re busy seeking a new hive site. It’s only the defenders of an actual hive that are dangerous.

In 1956, a strong species of African honey bee, well adapted to the tropical climate, was imported by Brazil to increase its honey production. Subsequently 26 swarms escaped and expanded throughout South America and northward. 

In 1990 the African honey bees entered the southwestern U.S. Over time they have hybridized with our European honey bees, creating what is known as Africanized honey bees. In our region virtually all honey bees are now the Africanized variety. 

This is significant because these bees do everything their earlier counterparts do, but to a greater degree. Think bees on steroids. That seems like a good thing, and it is for pollination and honey production, but there is a big drawback. Because of their fierce defense of the hive, they have been nicknamed “killer bees.” Actually, the sting of one Africanized honey bee is no worse than that of its European counterpart, but if the defenders of the hive perceive that you are a threat, they attack en masse and can chase you for up to a quarter of a mile. The toxicity of a hundred or more stings can be deadly!

That doesn’t make them “bad” bees. They’re just doing their job to keep the queen and hive safe. In fact, the bees you may encounter on the flowers in your garden are not hive defenders. They have their own job to do, pollinating. Feel free to get up close to check them out without worry. If a bee decides to check YOU out, don’t panic and flail your arms. That will only make the bee think you’re trying to kill her, and then you may very well get stung. It’s not in her best interests to sting you because she will probably lose her life as a consequence. Her stinger generally gets pulled out of her along with a chunk of her abdomen.

In recent years our nation has experienced a shocking decline in honey bees (as well as bumble bees and many solitary bees). Beekeepers have suddenly found all their bees dead or missing, a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). The most significant culprit appears to be a particular type of neuro-active insecticide called “neonicotinoids” which attack the nervous system. It doesn’t immediately kill bees, but it interferes with their flying and navigational abilities, and the tainted pollen they bring back to share with the hive has a cumulative effect like a slow poison, eventually incapacitating all the bees. Virtually all corn and a large percentage many other crops grown in the U.S. use this type of insecticide.

Human behavior, from chemical use to habitat destruction to climate change, has and continues to impose huge threats on these busy workers. Education is key to understanding what we are putting at risk. You might say our own lives depend on it!

The Pollinator Garden at the Reid Park Zoo is an excellent way to learn about the critically important roles played by all of our pollinators and how you can help keep them healthy and protected.  Like everything on the grounds of the Zoo, it is designed to promote both human and animal welfare.  And it’s good to know that the grounds and habitats in the Reid Park Zoo expansion will provide even more habitat, food, and shelter for our busy but underappreciated native pollinators.

The greenest of all of the Park’s green spaces.

In the desert, there is almost nothing that has greater appeal than a green oasis. Our city parks are treasures that attract Tucsonans daily for picnics, bird watching and just lying on green grass. Perhaps the oldest and most admired of all the parks is Reid Park, in midtown Tucson. Established in 1925 Randolph Park included a golf course and park, with a baseball stadium added in 1937. There are some delightful aerial photos of the seemingly barren park from the late 30s. The 160 acres on the southwest were renamed Reid Park in 1978 after Gene C. Reid, Tucson’s first Parks Director. 

When water features were added to the park, Reid Park literally came to life. The two ponds immediately attracted many bird species, and the ponds were soon home to many released “Pond Slider” pet turtles as well as ducks, many of whom had been adopted by well-meaning elementary schoolchildren whose teachers had incubated eggs in classrooms.  Cute ducklings soon grew into large, noisy adults, and many were released into Reid Park’s ponds.   Water in the desert is almost magical in its attraction for wildlife and humans, and all Tucsonans have understandably come to treasure the Reid Park green space. 

Two events in the 1960s made the park even greener: The Cele Peterson Rose Garden and the Reid Park Zoo. The Zoo in particular has become especially enticing to native flora and fauna. While the zoo is known for being home to hundreds of exotic animals from around the world, most people don’t realize it is also home to hundreds of other “volunteer” animals (and plants) that, like humans, thrive in an oasis. 

The Reid Park Zoo has become a magnet for wildlife and, as it has expanded from its very modest start in 1965, the numbers of animal (and plant) guests has increased exponentially.  This will continue as the zoo expands into The Pathway to Asia.

The Reid Park Zoo is the greenest of all of the Park’s green spaces. The Zoo provides many diverse and rich habitats. While these were specifically constructed to mimic the natural habitats of the zoo inhabitants, they also provide an amazing array of plant cover, moisture content, humidity and food availability (yes, food provided for zoo animals is a fabulous treat for many wild animals). In addition, the zoo has intentionally created additional green spaces not found in the park outside the zoo, most notably the new Pollinator Garden, a hot spot for butterflies and hummingbirds.   

While there are many examples of zoo guest species, including countless ducks from the Park’s ponds, I will discuss two of my favorites. Black Crowned Night Herons are remarkable birds common to freshwater swamps. They seem to flourish in the zoo and watching them is a special treat. Vermillion Flycatchers are spectacular red birds that are normally found near streams. The diverse Zoo habitats apparently make these stunning birds feel at home. Neither of these wonderful creatures would be visiting central Tucson if it weren’t for the diversity and richness of the habitats the zoo has created. 

In summary, you may plan a visit to the zoo to see African Wild Dogs or Anteaters, but for me, I am equally thrilled to see our rare native animals that would otherwise never be Reid Park visitors. It is no exaggeration to say that the Reid Park Zoo is the greenest of Reid Park green spaces. Expansion of the zoo will only create more “dark green” space in the park and I can hardly wait to see what new visitors it will attract. 

If you’re a regular visitor the Reid Park Zoo, you’ve probably noticed that somehow you feel better there, and better after the visit.   What’s going on?

Maybe:

  •  You visited zoos as a child, and visiting the Reid Park Zoo brings back many positive memories
  • You love being outdoors, especially in an environment where you can find shade and places to rest in the middle of a hot Tucson day.  
  • You need to interact with nature
  • You like to get exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise
  • You’re  stressed out and need an escape from the pace and obligations of your urban lifestyle
  •  You’re worried about climate change and want to find out how you can help mitigate its effects
  • You want recreation that’s not just good for you but beneficial to the community
  • Or, it’s just uplifting to spend time in a place where people are feeling happy and positive

What if you have high blood pressure? 

You’ve probably heard of the many research studies verifying the positive effects on our health of  gardening or having pets in the home, but not everyone is able to care for pets or has the strength to garden.   It turns out that visiting a zoo can also have these effects.  Psychologists and physiologists are beginning to study the positive health impacts of spending time in a zoo (like the Reid Park Zoo) where the environment is beautiful and the animals are well treated.  A study in Japan has actually documented the physical effects of visiting a zoo – reduced levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) as well as blood pressure readings.

It’s not news that exercise is beneficial for all of us, especially for children who may spend more and more of their days on “screen time.” It’s not always easy to reach that magic number of 10,000 steps per day – but it’s much easier to do when you’re walking through a safe environment, looking forward to a new wonder around every corner.  A visit to the Reid Park Zoo will allow you to get those steps in without really even noticing it.   You can stop and rest whenever you need to – but odds are, while you’re sitting on a bench in a shady spot, you’ll still be able to see one or more species playing, lounging, eating, or watching YOU with some interest.

You’re Not the Only One Who Feels Better

It’s well established that for many people, interaction with animals can be a great help in recovering from illness or injury, or as a treatment for anxiety and depression.  But did you know that zoos that were closed for a period of time during the pandemic discovered that zoo visitors are also important to the animals’ health and well being? 

 It’s nice to know that the Reid Park Zoo’s Meerkats, who are always on watch, will always be happy to see you and alert the mob that you’re nearby.    You will also be cheering up the marvelous Lar Gibbon, definitely the gregarious Sulpher-crested Cockatoo, and countless other creatures there.

Visiting the Reid Park Zoo will definitely do you some good.  How about taking a friend,  a child, or an  elderly neighbor so you can spread the benefits?

We invite you to join us in feeling better and doing more good by supporting the Reid Park Zoo’s  Pathway to Asia expansion!