If you've ever watched honey bees work the blossoms, you'll probably see them packing pollen in their pollen baskets and cleaning their tongue as they buzz from flower to flower.
Pollen is protein, and nectar, carbohydrates. Worker bees collect both, plus water and propolis (plant resin) for their colony.
"Pollen in the plant world is the equivalent of sperm in the animal world," writes UC Davis emeritus professor Norm Gary in his book, Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees. "Fertilization and growth of seeds depend upon the transfer of pollen from the male flower parts (anthers) to the receptive female parts (stigmas). For many species, such as grains and nuts, pollination occurs by airborne pollen that is produced in great quantity and characterized by very small, lightweight pollen grains. Airborne pollen causes most human allergies."
That's what he calls "Pollen 101."
"Inexperienced foragers quickly learn the most efficient movements to dislodge pollen grains from the anthers," writes Gary, who spent 32 years in the academic world of teaching, research and public service and continues to be a professional bee wrangler. "This frequently involves the use of their tongues and mandibles in licking and scraping the anthers, which slightly moistens the pollen."
"After becoming coated in pollen grains, the bees meticulously brush pollen from the body hairs with the comblike hairs on their legs. This process gradually transfers the pollen to the hind legs, where it accumulates as two 'pellets,' adhering to the outer surface of the pollen baskets on their hind legs."
A pollen-collector can collect a full load in about 10 minutes, Gary says. Number of pollen-collecting trips a bee can make in a day? Ten is typical.
Gary, who has amassed more than six decades of beekeeping experience, marvels at how the bee transfers pollen from its body to its pollen basket. It's "choreography that almost defies description," he writes.
Other folks just don't want to be around them. Sure, they appreciate the pollination services and they worry about the declining bee population, but they don't want these tiny agricultural workers near them.
We received an inquiry last week from an Amador County resident who wanted a "bee catcher" to come and remove honey bees from his rosemary bushes.
Was this a swarm? No. No swarm.
Just a lot of bees visiting his yard.
Honey bees, however, are social insects. Every morning (unless it's too cold, or rainy or windy) foragers leave home to collect food (nectar and pollen) to bring back to their colony.
Honey bees survive as a unit, a sort of super unit or superorganism, not as individuals. Each has a task to perform. So you can't just catch foragers (which already have a home) and give them to another beekeeper. Guard bees will stop them at the entrance.
As Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology says: "At this time of year, foraging bees are leaving colonies all over the warmer states to forage for water, nectar, and pollen. Certain plant blossoms are particularly attractive to honey bees, including rosemary.
"Despite the fact that you have many plants, thousands of blossoms, and hundreds of bees, the idea of capturing them and trying to integrate them into another colony is not likely to work.
"First, the colony from which they are originating would be suffering loss of valuable foragers. Second, honey bees from different colonies do not tend to combine very easily. They tend to fight."
"Finally, the queens in the colonies are laying around 1,000 eggs per day. In three weeks, nearly 1,000 new worker bees will emerge, daily. Later, the colonies will pump that up to 2,000 a day. We cannot capture bees at that rate of increase. It is best to let the healthy colonies build up quickly, then split the colonies in half (before they decide to swarm) and then have two colonies from one."
Bottom line: You should enjoy the bees in your yard, knowing "that because of the food you provide, one or more colonies are going to build up faster and provide extra bees that the beekeeper can use to increase colony numbers at the proper time of the season."
As for us, we look forward to spring and the return of blossoms, bees and butterflies. Especially the bees!
It was a golden moment.
The honey bees that collected pollen from our nectarine trees today looked as if they were lugging gold nuggets left over from the California Gold Rush. Struggling with the heavy pollen loads, some of the bees crashed to the ground.
The nectarine trees burst into bloom last weekend but the bees seemed to pay no attention to them until today, Presidents' Day. The queen (bee) probably had something to do with it! "Hey, girls, if I'm going to be laying 1500 to 2000 eggs a day, we need some food."
If you look at peach and nectarine blossoms, you probably couldn't distinguish between the two. Nectarines are actually a cultivar of peaches (Prunus persica). The peach tree, native to China, sports "fuzzy" fruit, while you could say the nectarines are "clean-shaven."
No one knows when nectarine varieties first surfaced, but according to Wikipedia, "the first recorded mention in English is from 1616." Pomologists figure that the peach was probably grown much earlier, though, in its native range.
One thing's for certain: thanks to a mild winter and early spring, our nectarine trees are blooming a couple weeks earlier this year than last year.
"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."--John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
Ecologist Louie Yang of the UC Davis Department of Entomology, tags that quote at the end of each email.
On that note, did you catch the Feb. 14th National Public Radio piece on "Why California Almonds Need North Dakota Flowers (And a Few Million Bees)?"
"Here's the web of connections: a threat to California's booming almond business; hard times for honey bees in North Dakota; and high corn prices," Dan Charles said.
The gist of it:
Every year, bees from 1.6 million of the nation's hives are trucked into California to pollinate the 750,000 acres of almonds. Since the almond pollination season is brief--a few weeks in mid-February--the bees need someplace to thrive after the bloom ends. Many beekeepers head to North Dakota's federally funded government program, the Conservation Reserve Program, where flowers bloom all summer long. Basically, Uncle Sam leases land from the farmers to help the bees thrive.
Now, however, North Dakota farmers are finding it more profitable to grow corn than put their land in the Conservation Reserve Program.
"The amount of North Dakota land in the Conservation Reserve, meanwhile, has declined by a third over the past five years," said Charles. "This year, it's expected to take another plunge, perhaps down to half what it was its peak."
So, bottom line, California almonds--and the nation's bees--are tied to the North Dakota's Conservation Reserve Program.
As Charles correctly pointed out: "This is not just a beekeeper's problem anymore. ...the prosperity of almond growers...depends on what happens to bees on the lonely northern Plains."
To get a really good grasp of the situation, read Hannah Nordhaus' excellent book, "The Beekeeper's Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America."
NPR interviewed some of the very migratory beekeepers that Nordhaus interviewed.
A good way to spend part of Valentine's Day is to "bee" among the almond blossoms.
We stopped by the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Facility on Bee Biology Road, University of California, Davis, today to see and hear the bees buzzing.
That they did! An entire chorus of bee buzzing...
As Debbie Arrington wrote in today's Sacramento Bee: "Fluffy puffs of delicate white and pink flowers crown tree after tree; they hint of spring--except it's only Valentine's Day and spring isn't supposed to arrive for another five weeks."
Don't tell that to the Laidlaw bees. Spring is already here.
Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen, a member of the UC Davis Department of Entomology faculty since 1976, told Arrington: "Honey bees don't really get confused. They do act predictably. Anytime the temperature gets above 55 degrees, if there's food somewhere, they'll go get it."
"Street trees usually bloom a week earlier than orchards," Mussen told her. "Plums, cherries, peaches, apricots and almonds are going like crazy."
Yes, indeed. We saw street trees (almonds) blooming in Benicia--maybe we should spell that Bee-nicia--in late January.
And that was way before Valentine's Day! Sweet!