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Eddie Dunbar, President and founder of the Insect Museum of California, caught and released bee after bee with his butterfly net, including this black tailed bumblebee, at the Lakeside Park Garden Center near Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. Protecting native pollinators has been one of Dunbar's passions as he works with garden staff and volunteers to create a healthy environment for the different species. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

OAKLAND -- Around the bend past Children's Fairyland, between the short-cut grass courts of the Oakland Lawn Bowling Club and the lush green lawns along Lake Merritt teeming with squawking geese, past sleekly dressed runners and parents pushing strollers, and just beyond the white boats bobbing in the lake beside the Boathouse, there is a totem pole in front of a building across from a beautiful garden.

It's here, in front of the Rotary Nature Center, where Eddie Dunbar, head of the Insect Sciences Museum of California gives tours of the Lakeside Park Garden Center, where he introduces visitors to very small and special guests.

"Welcome to the oldest wildlife sanctuary in North America," Dunbar said. "Eighteen-seventy -- we beat Yellowstone by two years."

On Sunday, Dunbar and the ISMC will participate in the Lake Merritt Bioblitz, in which citizen scientists -- that is, anyone with a smartphone -- can come to Lake Merritt to photograph and document the various species around the lake using an app called iNaturalist.

Dunbar is easily recognizable by his smile and his butterfly net, the only net allowed in Lakeside Park. He began the tour by showing off insect pinnings he'd collected around the Oakland area, including cicadas, ironclad beetles and California Harvester ants. In the background, Nature Center Supervisor Alexa Fulper fed two mice to a heron, courtesy of a snake that wasn't hungry that afternoon.


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Before founding ISMC, Dunbar operated the insect hotline out of UC Berkeley, doing "entomology outreach on the ground." He explained. "'How do I catch a butterfly? What is this in my kitchen?' That was my territory."

Dunbar also consulted on the Pixar film, "A Bug's Life." But whether he is on the phone or in the garden, insect quandaries have a way of finding him.

"Eddie! Eddie!" a woman's voice called as he walked up the hill to the garden. Laura Compton, who's on the maintenance team, was holding a jar of what looked like dead bees.

"These are European honey bees," Dunbar said, and went on to ask Compton multiple questions and diagnosed the bees as ZomBees, or insects fallen victim to the parasitic humpback fly (apocephalus borealis).

"It lays its larva inside the bee and literally eats it alive from the inside out." Dunbar took the jar and promised Compton he would investigate further, and though the tour began with this rather morbid example, protecting native pollinators became the overarching theme of the day.

The gardens were all 'pollinator friendly' per the design of Lakeside Park Manager Tora Rocha.

"It's all to help restore habitat for native bees. In Oakland, that means bumblebees," Dunbar said. "About 85 percent of popular plants in private landscaping are exotics, or plants that local bees just don't eat."

Eddie Dunbar, President and founder of the Insect Museum of California, shows off the "Bee Hotel" at the Lakeside Park Garden Center near Lake
Eddie Dunbar, President and founder of the Insect Museum of California, shows off the "Bee Hotel" at the Lakeside Park Garden Center near Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. Protecting native pollinators has been one of Dunbar's passions as he works with garden staff and volunteers to create a healthy environment for the different species. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

Then Dunbar showed a picture on his mobile phone of a desolate, blackened expanse of land. "This is what our current landscaping practices look like to native bees," he said. It was a picture of Hiroshima circa World War II.

In the Japanese Garden section, filled with trees and flowers and dotted with intimate seating areas, a native bee called habropoda depressa fluttered around purple ceanothus flowers, not far from the jewel of this pollinator garden -- the Bee Hotel.

The site is a wooden structure more than 6 feet tall, filled with row upon row of logs and sticks of bamboo, all drilled with holes for the native bee.

"The holes are set up specifically to be just the right diameter for each species," Dunbar said, "from black carpenter bees an inch long to little sweat bees."

Over the course of the tour, Dunbar caught and released bee after bee with his butterfly net, each a different species. He explained their unique characteristics, like the bright yellow pollen sacks on the legs of the black tailed bumblebee. Their pollination secrets? Bumblebees can fly inside a flower and whine at a certain pitch that literally makes the pollen fall off. But Dunbar also detailed the threats to their survival.

Apparently, one of the best things for a garden is one of the worst things for native bees: mulching.

"Eighty percent of native bees live under ground. So when you put down mulch, that habitat is no longer available to them." Dunbar warned. "If you do it in a wide area, like San Diego for instance where there are no native bees left, you have a local extinction."

But this garden was alive with local pollinators and the tour finished in front of a monarch butterfly, an important pollinator in its own right, nestled in the pink flowers of Silky Gold Scarlet Milkweed.

"Bugs might be at the bottom of the food chain," Dunbar said, "but that just means they hold everything else up."

lake merritt BIOBLITZ
What: Wild Oakland, Nerds for Nature, iNaturalist, OpenROV, Rotary Nature Center, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Oakland Museum of California have joined to organize BioBlitz where hundreds of citizen scientists will catalog as many species of plants and animals as possible in a day at Lake Merritt
When: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Sunday
Where: Rotary Nature Center, 600 Bellevue Ave., Oakland
Cost: Free
Info: http://wildoakland.org/; www.inaturalist.org/projects/lake-merritt-bioblitz