There are many California specialty crops that are harvested for their foliage; since we're not harvesting a fruit or vegetable folks don't often think of these as providing resources for bees. However even though we eat the foliage, these plants still need to flower and be pollinated so that seed for the next crop can be produced.
One of the healthiest of these specialty crops -- both for us and for bees -- is bok choy. Sometimes referred to as Chinese cabbage, it is in the mustard family (Brassicaceae) and goes by the scientific name Brassica rapa subsp. chinensis. California leads the US in production of Asian vegetables; boy choy is a cool-season crop that is grown along the Central Coast from Salinas to Santa Maria.
Fortunately for us, this superfood that is full of vitamins and antioxidants is easy to grow at home. Interestingly, recent research has shown that the antioxidant levels in bok choy leaves increase with stir-frying, which is the common method of cooking (Food Chemisty. 2016. 203:23-27 and International Journal of Food Properties. 2016. 19(11):2536-2549).
Plants are available at the garden center in late fall. Grow in full sun or light shade and provide plenty of water. If you don't have a garden, bok choy can easily be grown in a large container like a 5-gallon bucket. Here's one of our plants at the Haven about a month after planting.
The normal harvest recommendation is to cut off the entire plant at the base. To feed the bees, however, remove individual leaves as needed and leave the plant intact. So long as there is not a hard frost, it will go on to flower in January.
The process of leafy vegetables flowering is called "bolting" and is generally thought to make the plant inedible. But not to the bees! This is especially true in bok choy; the flower structure of this plant makes both pollen and nectar available to bees, which isn't the case for all mustards. At the Honey Bee Haven we plant several beds of various Brassicaeae for the sole purpose of letting them flower to feed our bees. Here's a honey bee on bok choy in late January.
Central California's mild winters mean we can grow our state's specialty crops year-round. Tasty, nutritious, and easily-grown, fava beans are a winter crop that feeds both us and honey bees. Favas, like the honey bees that pollinate them, are native to the Mediterranean region. Since honey bees are active when it's sunny and temperatures are above 55 degrees, there will be ample pollination in our mild winters. Recent research by Bishop et. al (Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment; 2016. 220:89-96) suggests that fava plants become more dependent on insect pollination as temperatures increase. Thus bee pollination may play an increasingly important role in production of this crop as our climate changes.
How to grow: Fava plants may be found at some garden centers, but it's much easier to locate and purchase seeds. They germinate quickly and are also a great project for children who are learning to garden. If started now, beans should be ready to harvest in February or March; you'll also find them at farmer's markets at that time.
Pests: Bean aphids (Aphis fabae) may infest fava beans as they mature. These do not affect yield; wash these off with water. UC IPM has more detailed information on biology and management guidlines.
Nutrition and recipes: Fava beans (Vicia faba) are full of nutrients and a great source of fiber and lean protein. Favas may be eaten raw by taking them out of the pod and removing the outer coating, otherwise they should be cooked. This recipe for fava bean pesto from the Food Network utilizes basil, another great, easy-to-grow bee plant.
The UC Cooperative Extension Small Farms Program has a page on favas with more information about growing, nutrients, and economics. Both basil and fava beans are important to the state's specialty crop economy. California leads the US in herb production, and in coastal California, which is the center of the state's fava production, the San Mateo County fava bean crop was valued at $1.8M in 2015 (California Agricultural Statistics Review, 2015).
Cautions: fava beans contain oxalic acid, a naturally-occurring substance found in some vegetables. It may crystallize as oxalate stones in the urinary tract in some people, so anyone with known oxalate urinary tract stones should avoid fava beans.
Favism is a rare inherited disorder most common in people of southern European origin. They have an enzyme deficiency that causes a reaction when they eat fava beans are eaten or are exposed to fava pollen. They may develop hepatitis or flu-like symptoms.
Welcome. This blog will provide updates and information on the project, "The ART of the Specialty Crops and Pollinator Connection", which is based at the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven located at UC Davis. Haven scientists Christine Casey and Elina Niño are leading the project; thanks go to the California Department of Food and Agriculture for funding.
ART = awareness, relevance, and training. California leads the nation in production of specialty crops; these crops depend on bee pollinators. Our first goal is to promote awareness and relevance of the specialty crop-pollinator connection to the public, including creating pollinator habitat in food gardens. We'll couple this with programs about growing and cooking food to reinforce the link between healthy bees, nutritious food, and healthy people.
Our second goal is to train other educators to expand our outreach. We're especially excited about establishing our "Bee Cam" that will allow live streaming of bee-flower interactions.
You can also follow us on Facebook to learn more about this project and its activities.