The Echium wildpretii is commonly known as "The Tower of Jewels" but it ought to be known as "The Tower of Beauty."
That's especially when honey bees gather to collect the blue pollen and sip the sweet nectar.
Or when their wings glisten in the early morning sun.
Or when it's National Pollinator Week.
In our family, we call it "The Christmas Tree" due to two reasons: its height (it's as tall as a Christmas tree) and due to its spiked red blossoms, the color of Christmas.
The plant, in the family Boraginaceae, is biennial and it can reach 10 feet in height. You often see its purple-spiked cousin, the Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) growing wild in Sonoma, along the roads to Bodega Bay.
The species is endemic to the island of Tenerife. There they call it "Tenerife bugloss."
Whatever you call the plant, it's good to see it racing up the popularity scale as gardeners seek it for their pollinator gardens. There's even a Facebook page, "We got an Echium through the winter."
Common question: "Anyone got seeds for sale?'
Echium wildpretii is that pretty.
Here's the scenario: Our pollinator garden is buzzing with the sights and sounds of honey bees. Ah, spring! A few feet away, California scrub jays are nesting in the cherry laurel hedges. They leave periodically to gather food for their young. Dozens of honey bees are foraging in the Spanish lavender. They leave periodically to deliver nectar and pollen to their colonies.
It's Saturday, April 22, and I leave to cover the 103rd UC Davis Picnic Day. I am unaware that the scrub jays are having a picnic of their own in our Spanish lavender.
Scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica) eat bees. Honey bees. And lots of other insects, too, plus frogs, lizards, grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables. And yes, they will raid bird nests, eating the eggs AND the young.
But back to the bees. Our resident scrub jays seem to like our tenant honey bees a lot more than they should! We've seen them pick off a foraging bee, thrash it on the sidewalk, and decapitate it, leaving behind the bee abdomen (complete with stinger).
Scrub jays are intelligent. Never denigrate a scrub jay by calling it a "bird brain."
But what happened in our pollinator garden Saturday afternoon was totally unexpected.
Yours truly, shoeless but not sockless, walks out the back door and into the pollinator garden. I pad past the year-around bird feeder filled with seeds. (Our birds never go hungry!) I walk along the cement sidewalk separating the pollinator garden from the bed of Spanish lavender. And then...Ouch! What was that? Intense pain shoots up my foot. Feels like a barbed hook. A venomous barbed hook.
When that happens, it's important to remove the stinger (apiculturists call it a "sting") or the venom will keep pumping. We do and it doesn't.
Then, being the curious sort, I walk back to the sidewalk--this time wearing shoes!--and see dozens of headless bees. A veritable carnage. I pick one up for closer investigation, and I get stung again. On my hand. By a dead bee.
What are the odds? Well, it happens. Dead bees can sting.
“As you are aware, the nervous system of insects is quite a bit more decentralized than is our own,” says UC Cooperative Extension apiculturist emeritus Eric Mussen, who completed 38 years of service in 2014 but continues to maintain an office in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology
“A honey bee sting, even when detached from the bee body--particularly the brain, from a mammalian point of view--can continue to operate: dig the sting in deeper and pump in the venom,” he says. "So, the still fresh and functional abdomens of decapitated honey bees can function just as they do when ripped from the body by stinging. It doesn't matter how the sting gets into your tissue, the exoskeleton, muscles, nerve ganglion, and venom sac act just like they would from a real sting. The trick, in your case, was to step on the abdomen at the perfect angle to push the sting into your skin. From then on, nature took over."
"Have I heard of people being stung by excised bee stings before?" Mussen asks. "No, I haven't, but it makes perfect sense to me that it happened."
The next day, I walk into the yard, and I see and photograph a scrub jay decapitating a bee, discarding the abdomen. It has apparently learned not to mess with the business end of a bee.
As for me, I have learned not to go shoeless in the pollinator garden...or I may get the business end of a dead bee.
How often do you see a honey bee "standing upright" to reach nectar?
"Well, I guess I could just buzz up there and grab some nectar! But why not stay right here where I am and just s-t-r-e-t-c-h like a giraffe to get it?"
This bee, foraging on a Photinia blossom, almost looked like an athlete in training. Was she stretching to "warm up?" Was she stretching to improve performance? Flexibility? Mobility?
Me thinks she was just taking a short cut to the sweet stuff and being a little territorial as other bees buzzed around her.
Our honey bee will return to the hive where workers will process the nectar into honey. Humans will get some of it, too.
If you'd like to sample honey--and mix with entomologists--mark your calendar for Saturday, April 22 and "bee" at Briggs Hall for the annual honey tasting, just one part of the 200 some events at the 103rd annual UC Davis Picnic Day. It's an all-day campuswide open house aimed to educate, inform and entertain.
How about "getting the red in?"
Have you ever seen a honey bee packing white, pink, blue, lavender, yellow, orange or red pollen? Have you ever seen the colorful diversity of pollen grains gracing their hives? Stunning.
Take red. It's a warning color in nature--think lady beetles, aka ladybugs. Predators know they don't taste good so they learn to leave them alone.
A chunk of red pollen on a honey bee, however, looks like a sun-ripened strawberry.
Lately we've been seeing honey bees with red pollen foraging on our Spanish lavender, Lavandula stoechas. Problem is, lavender yields a pale whitish pollen, not red. Last summer, the red came from the adjacent rock purslane (Calandrinia grandiflora). It's not blooming now, however, so, they're drawing that brilliant red pollen elsewhere. And stopping by the Spanish lavender for nectar, their flight fuel.
Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, says "I have not observed honey bees collecting pollen from lavender, but have seen them with pollen loads from other flowers stopping for a sip of nectar...especially honey bees that have been foraging on plants that do not produce nectar like California poppies, and lupines."
"English lavender, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and most other members of the mint family have pale pollen rarely collected by honey bees, but these garden herbs are all great nectar resources," he says. "It is common to see honey bees on these plants with the wrong color pollen as they forage the herbs for nectar."
We're waiting for the cilantro to bloom. Then the bees will "be in the pink," so to speak. Pink pollen.
Meanwhile, if you want to learn more about honey bees, three UC Davis-affiliated events await you.
Saturday, May 6: The inaugural California Honey Festival, an event coordinated by the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center, will be held within a four-block area in downtown Woodland. Free and open to the public, it will include presentations, music, mead speakeasies, honey-tasting, vendors, bee friendly gardening, and a kids' zone.
Sunday, May 7: The third annual UC Davis Bee Symposium, sponsored by the Honey and Pollination Center and the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, will take place in the UC Davis Conference Center. Keynote speaker is Steve Sheppard, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology, Washington State University, Pullman, Wash. Registration is underway.
Tuesday through Friday, Sept. 5-8: The Western Apicultural Society, founded at UC Davis, will return to UC Davis for its 40th annual meeting. It was co-founded by Norm Gary (it was his brainchild), Eric Mussen and Becky Westerdahl at what is now the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, UC Davis. Mussen, now Extension apiculturist emeritus, is serving his sixth term as president since 1984. WAS serves the educational needs of beekeepers from 13 states, plus parts of Canada.
And it's definitely not a good time to be a honey bee.
The wind-whipped storms that are ravaging California are wreaking havoc on the state's almond pollination season, says honey bee guru Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist emeritus, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, and president of the Western Apicultural Society.
The situation: California's million acres of almonds require two hives per acre for pollination. Without bees, no almonds.
Honey bees usually fly when temperatures reach around 55 degrees. During inclement weather, they hole up inside their hives. They're so unlike our postal workers who vow that “neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet” can stop mail delivery. Unfavorable weather for bees? Think "no-fly zone."
Mussen, California's Extension apiculturist for 38 years before retiring in 2014, continues to maintain an office in Briggs Hall, UC Davis, and respond to inquiries about honey bees. Not one to say "no," Mussen is serving a sixth term as president of the Western Apicultural Society (WAS), which was founded at UC Davis and gearing up for its 40th anniversary meeting Sept. 5-8 Davis.
And the steady rain we're having? How will that affect the pollination season?
“Rain," said Mussen, "is hard on the almond bloom for a few important reasons." He lists five reasons:
- Rain frequently is accompanied by cooler weather, which delays bloom. But, the delay can last only a short while, and then the flowers open and shed pollen, despite the weather. Honey bees usually neither forage on damp or wet blossoms, nor fly in the rain.
- If pollen grains come into contact with water, the water enters the openings in the pollen grains, through which the pollen tubes are supposed to emerge. The water is absorbed by the living protoplasm in the pollen grain and bursts its contents.
- Free water tends to transport spores of fungal, and sometimes bacterial, diseases to open flowers. Those microbes can invade the floral tissues, or in some cases, begin a journey through the flowers into the branches of the tree. When rain is imminent, growers usually will apply a fungicide to their trees to reduce the amount of infection. Frequent rains can promote multiple pesticide applications.
- By almond bloom time, honey bee colonies are collecting as much pollen as they can find, to feed an expanding brood nest. A prolonged period of inclement weather will interfere with nectar and pollen foraging, and leave little food to raise be brood. Lack of incoming pollens can reduce brood rearing, sometimes even to the point of the adult workers consuming most of the younger brood to save the nutrients for better times.
- Beekeepers who are used to seeing their colonies increase from 8-10 frames of bees to 10-12 frames during almond bloom may be disappointed this year due to a situation that is beyond their control. Providing supplemental feed can help their bees to a limited extent, but we have no supplemental feed that matches the nutritional value of mixed pollens.
Mussen says that native, solitary bee species, such as the blue orchard bee, also can be impacted negatively by continuous wet weather. “Foraging flight is curtailed, pollens and nectars are diluted or washed away, nesting sites can be flooded, and preferred or required floral sources may not be available that year,” he said. “This can have substantial negative impacts on the size of the following generation.”
Bottom line: it's not a good time for almond growers, beekeepers, and bees.