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Abuzz About Bees

There’s a theory—it may or may not belong to Albert Einstein—that should the planet’s bees suddenly die out, all humanity would be gone within four years.
Sound dire? It’s not unthinkable.

California’s 1,600 different species of native bees represent one of the most important and fascinating links in our ecosystem. But bees’ numbers are shrinking: Climate change, pesticides, dwindling food supply, devastating parasites, and disease all contribute to their decline.

That’s why the Oakland Museum of California’s family-friendly exhibition, Bees: Tiny Insect, Big Impact, in the Gallery of California Natural Sciences, shines a light on the challenges facing California’s most buzz-worthy insect. “Bees are really important to our ecosystem, both nationally and globally—and particularly in California, one of the breadbaskets of the nation,” explains Sarah Seiter, OMCA’s associate curator of natural sciences.

The exhibition, adapted from a show of the same title that debuted at the Oakland International Airport, focuses on the life of bee colonies and native bees. Featuring hands-on activities and a supersized beehive that kids can climb through, Bees aims to educate visitors on how they can get involved in saving bees. Also included are workshops on building bee “hotels” and tips for designing your own bee-friendly backyard. Other installations include a beekeeping suit that visitors can try on; honey-extracting equipment; photos and games to showcase bee diversity; and an “action lounge,” where visitors can learn how to help sustain bee populations.

“One of our goals is to have people leave here feeling they can go home and make a difference—and actively change the fate of bees in their own neighborhood,” Seiter says. “This is something they can take a stand on.”

In conjunction with the Bees exhibition, get involved with research activities being conducted by local scientists. One partner research group is ZomBee Watch, a citizen science project sponsored by San Francisco State University that tracks populations of bees infected by the Apocephalus borealis, a parasitic fly that lays its eggs inside bees, effectively turning those bees into zombies. These zombie bees are attracted to light, and visitors can learn to make a special light in their own yard, then track how many of the undead bees come to it, and share their research online with scientists at the university.

Another citizen science project featured in the exhibition, the Great Sunflower Project, asks people to simply track the pollinators. “Being a naturalist is awesome, but citizen science is great because your data collection and observations are really going to be used,” Seiter says. “This is data that’s going to inform policy. It’s genuinely going to benefit science.”

Bees: Tiny Insect, Big Impact is on view in the Gallery of California Natural Sciences through October 22, 2017.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Inside Out, the Oakland Museum of California’s Member magazine.