By Tom Hansen and Jeanne Lawrence, Butte County Master Gardeners, January 4, 2013
Honey bees will be brought to Northern California from all across the US to begin pollinating the almond crop by mid-February. Although almonds don’t have a lot of nectar, they do have a lot of pollen, which allows the bees to build up the strength of their colonies after the arduous journey of travelling across the country.
Honey bees can forage as far away as three to five miles from their colony when conditions are favorable for flight, although most foragers tend to stay within a few hundred yards of the colony if it is near adequate food rewards (nectar and pollen). Honey bees will venture out from their hives when temperatures reach the mid-50s Fahrenheit; they won’t travel far, but they will search for sources of pollen and nectar nearby.
Because honey bee queens are constantly laying eggs and raising their young, these bees need food year-round. Honey bees forage when temperatures are 55 degrees and higher; they do not forage in rain or in wind stronger than 12 miles per hour. Cloudiness also reduces flight activity, especially near threshold temperatures. A honey bee normally flies at a speed of 18 miles per hour empty and 15 miles per hour carrying of load of pollen or nectar. However, if they are agitated and empty, honey bees can fly about 20 miles per hour. They cannot carry a load upwind against much more than a 15 mile-per-hour wind.
Native bees, like bumble bees and mason bees, are solitary and do not live together in hives like honeybees do. Solitary native bees were here long before the arrival of honey bees, which were introduced from Europe in the early 17th century. Native bees lay their eggs throughout the summer and fall and their pupae (young) develop in seclusion during the colder months. They need daytime temperatures of 65 to 70 degrees before they emerge as adults, so they will not begin pollinating until early April, or when daytime temperatures rise. While native bees do not play a significant role in almond pollination, they are critical in pollinating many of our summer fruits, vegetables and flowers.
Different species of pollinators are attracted to different types of flowers (generally those that suit their tongue length), but nearly all types of bees show interest in blue, yellow and ultraviolet hues.
Some guidelines for bee-friendly garden plantings include the following:
- Natural species (rather than hybrids) produce nectar and pollen that is more accessible for bees
- Native flowers can attract solitary bees (like mason bees)
- Grow a variety of species from different plant families
- Try to have something flowering throughout the season
- Plant several of one type of plant together – they will provide a better magnet for the bees
You can help bees out by planting mustards or clover as a cover crop – yellow mustard is one of the earliest blooming flowers that are attractive to honey bees. Native plants and shrubs that are attractive to bees include the California wildflower “Baby Blue Eyes,” and California Desert Bluebells, both of which are annuals; and California Dutchman’s Pipe, an attractive deciduous vine festooned with cream-colored flowers that have red-purple veins.
Non-native plants that are bee-friendly in our area include flowering quince, which is often the first noticeable flowering shrub of the year; the popular evergreen camellia japonica, some varieties of which bloom as early as November; and witch hazel (hamamelis), a yellow-flowering shrub with a distinctive fragrance and intriguing blossoms.
Crocus and hyacinth bulbs are also attractive to bees. These should be planted in November or December after spending 10 weeks chilling in a refrigerator ahead of time (as our climate is too mild to provide them the requisite chill hours) – and, like tulips, these are best treated as annuals in our climate.
When doing your winter garden clean-up, keep the bees in mind: leave some “wild,” messy areas in your yard for bees. For example, old fence posts, dead logs, and decaying sunflower heads all provide native bees with places to hide, nest, and raise their next generation.
Keep other pollinators in mind, too: for instance, instead of using a hummingbird feeder which you might only sporadically keep filled, provide natural nectar at this time of year by planting camellias, flowering quince and flowering currant.
Photo: Honeybee on prune blossom/span>