A sure sign of spring: honey bees foraging on mustard.
You'll see mustard growing as cover crops in the Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley vineyards, but you'll also see it gracing the hillsides, roadways and area gardens.
It's a time when the yellow pollen dusts the bees from head to thorax to abdomen. Sometimes you'll see a bee's head absolutely covered with the "gold dust."
According to this Sonoma County website:
"Whether it's growing wild or planted by thoughtful vineyard managers, mustard is more than just a feast for the eyes, it's a feast for the vines. It thrives just until bud break, when it is turned under to mulch and provide valuable nutrients and phosphorus to the emerging grape plants."
"The practice holds deep roots in Wine Country. According to legend, a Franciscan missionary first spread the mustard seed while landscaping church properties throughout California. Planting was simple – these early world gardeners carried the mustard seeds in a sack slung over their backs, and each sack had a small hole in it, so as they walked, the seeds would scatter."
Indeed, mustard is not only a feast for the eyes. The mustard plant, from the family Brassicaceae, provides us with
- The condiment known as mustard (seeds are ground and mixed with water, vinegar and other ingredients); and
- Mustard greens (the leaves are edible and perfect for a salad).
And it's a feast for bees!
The joy of the season strikes a chord.
When bees slip out of their California hives during winter sun breaks, they often head over to mallow blossoms to grab some nectar and pollen. A favorite is the tree mallow, Lavatera maritima “bicolor," native to Mediterranean regions of the world and California. The genus derives its name from Swiss botanist J.R. Lavater, who first discovered the species in Spain. The drought-tolerant plants, which can reach 12 feet in height, are perfect for gardeners challenging the California drought!
It doesn't take long for honey bees to discover the towering blossoms. The bees buzz in and out, battling for position, jockeying for the precious pollen. Then, laden with "gold dust," they linger in flight to clean their tongues for another go-around.
Bees, we can't get enough of them! Is it spring yet?
Meanwhile, let's fast-forward to May 2017. Mark your calendars for Saturday, May 6 and Sunday, May 7. On May 6 is the inaugural California Honey Festival in Woodland, and on May 7, the fourth annual UC Davis Bee Symposium.
The California Honey Festival, co-sponsored by the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, UC Davis, and the Woodland Hoteliers, is an all-day family festival that will take place on Main Street, Woodland.
“The California Honey Festival will be a great opportunity for guests to experience the full spectrum of honey flavor,” said Honey and Pollination Center director Harris, who is coordinating the festival's educational content. “Not all honey tastes the same! Like wine, varietals of honey flavors and aromas can be very distinct. We developed our Honey Flavor Wheel in 2015 to help teach people about the nuances of honey flavor.”
In addition to tasting honey, festival goers can learn about honey bees, their pollination services, and the health benefits of honey. They can sample specialty meads or “honey wine”; taste honey-inspired food and beverages, and purchase honey and bee-themed gifts. Other family friendly activities will include a bee-themed play structure for kids, cooking demonstrations featuring honey, and informational sessions on beekeeping basics and bee-friendly gardening. More information on the California Honey Festival, including sponsorships and vendor details, is available on the festival website, www.CaliforniaHoneyFestival.com
And the next day, Sunday, May 7, is the fourth annual Bee Symposium, co-sponsored by the Honey and Pollination Center and the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. The day-long event will focus on bee health and best management practices. It will feature keynote speakers, panel discussions, a luncheon, and a graduate student poster contest, among other activities. It's a mingling of bee scientists and researchers, beekeepers and others interested in bee health. Details are pending.
The cherry laurel, Prunus caroliniana, a member of the rose family, draws honey bees as if there's no tomorrow. Native to the southeastern United States, it can double as a 15-to-36-feet-tall hedge, screening neighbors from neighbors, as well as providing ample food for birds when the tiny black cherrylike fruit develops.
But the bees...the bees...if you've ever seen bees work the spring blossoms, gathering the cream-colored pollen and the nectar to take back to their colonies, you know how frenetic they can be.
Back at the hive, the nectar turns into cherry-laurel honey....hmmm.
Speaking of honey, the so-called "nectar of the gods," how much honey does an average California colony produce?
California Extension apiculturist (emeritus) Eric Mussen, whose career spanned 38 years, was recently asked that question. When he joined the faculty at the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology--that was during the 1976-77 drought--he was told that the average honey production per hive was around 29 to 35 pounds. Today the figure often quoted is 60 pounds.
But that depends.
"Later I learned that the 'average' honey production--years with "normal" rain--is not average across all our beekeepers," Mussen related. "The queen and bulk bee producers in northern California have never made much of any honey, especially after yellow starthistle fell victim to the USDA biocontrol program.
"The San Joaquin Valley beekeepers were more likely to approach the state average. They could obtain some honey from the crops they were pollinating and some from the wildflowers, especially in the hills surrounding the valley. It was the Southern California beekeepers who made up the difference. Production of 100-plus pounds could be common."
What about honey production today, in the throes of the California drought? "For the last few years, we have been having 1976-77-type crops," Mussen said. "The northern beekeepers basically have no honey unless they take their colonies out of state. The San Joaquin Valley beekeepers probably are averaging around 30 pounds or so, and the southern beekeepers would be lucky to be getting around 60."
The few years when California experienced high rain and floods--back in the 1980s and 1990s--beekeepers throughout the state reported an average of 90-plus pounds per colony. "Even the northern beekeepers produced a little," Mussen said. "However, even if we have a horrendous El Niño event, it probably won't make a huge difference in honey production this coming year. The seed bank has been terribly diminished by so many consecutive years of drought."
"While we can never predict exactly who is going to get the honey and how much, this is the way things generally tend to go in California," Mussen noted. "Our bees, and our beekeepers, are really hurting for nectar and honey right now."
There's not much blooming right now. But for those "lucky" honey bees with access to a 30-foot-high hedge of luxuriant cherry laurel, as in our yard, life is good.
That's when life is just a bowl of cherries (cherry laurels).
If you've ever seen honey bees foraging on primrose, you may have seen something unusual.
What's with the pollen hanging below their hind legs as they buzz from primrose to primrose?
There's a reason for that.
Distinguished emeritus professor Robbin Thorp of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nemalogy alerted us to the reason.
"Note the stringy mass (mess) of pollen hanging below the hind legs of the bee," Thorp points out. "Honey bees have great difficulty in collecting (actually packing into their corbiculae) pollen from any large flowered species of Oenothera. The pollen grains are very large, more than 100 microns, and tied together with viscin threads to form a webby mass. This is ideal for transfer by hawkmoths where stringy masses get attached to their undersides as they probe for nectar."
"Oenothera pollen," Thorp says, "can be collected by some native bees where the scopae are modified to contain sparse simple hairs where the webby pollen can be easily stored. But the corbiculae of honey bees are not well suited to handle this webby stuff, since it will not pass neatly through the 'pollen mill' of the honey bee hind leg."
He recalls seeing the same situation when honey bees were working his desert evening primroses.
And speaking of honey bees, it's National Honey Bee Day on Saturday, Aug. 22.
Extension apiculturist (emeritus) Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, wrote a piece on a UC ANR blog published this week. He initially published it in the June 2013 edition of the UC IPM Retail Nursery & Garden Center IPM News but it's quite timely.
"The actual cause of honey bee decline is still uncertain," Mussen says. "What is known is a number of factors are probably involved. Honey bees are their most robust and able to best contend with stresses when well fed. In addition to water, honey bees require nectar sources for carbohydrates and a varied mix of pollens to provide proteins, lipids, vitamins, minerals, sterols, antioxidants, and other nutrients. Drought, flooding, and conversion of former foraging grounds into large agricultural monocultures, highways, airports, developments, and so forth have led to honey bee malnutrition in many locations."
"In the last 20 years beekeepers have been encountering a series of previously exotic pests that invade the hive and kill bees, such as the varroa mite; new honey bee diseases, including Nosemaceranae; and many viruses."
"Pesticides can also be involved in bee decline, especially when applied to plants when they are in bloom and bees are foraging," Mussen points out. "Many insecticides are highly toxic to bees including virtually all organophosphates, carbamates, and pyrethroids. If not killed in the field, foraging bees can collect residue-contaminated pollens and bring them back to the hive for immediate consumption or long-term storage. There are serious concerns over the chronic, sublethal effects of these residues on the physiology of immature and adult bees."
"A newer class of insecticides, the neonicotinoids, which include imidacloprid, clothianidin, and dinotefuran, also pose hazards for honey bees. These products are systemic materials that move through the plant and are included in the nectar and pollen of flowers when they bloom. Although the neonicotinoid residues may not kill bees immediately, they may have sublethal effects, such as suppressing immune and detoxification systems, causing bees to be more sensitive to other stresses."
If you want to know more about neonics, be sure to attend the UC Davis neonics conference on "Truth or Myth: Neonicotinoids and Their Impact on Pollinators: What Is the Science-Based Research?” from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 9 in the UC Davis Conference Center. UC Davis researchers and state officials will address the crowd, announced conference coordinator Dave Fujino, director of the UC Davis-based California Center for Urban Horticulture. You can register on the CCUH website.
It's a given: Honey bees love lupine.
We watched them buzzing around a flower patch of blue (lupine) and gold (California poppies) today along Hopkins Road, University of California, Davis, west of the central campus.
Those are Aggie colors: blue and gold. And those are Aggie bees, from the nearby Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, operated by the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, on Bee Biology Road.
Speaking of bees, the Bohart Museum of Entomology is hosting an open house, themed "Pollination Nation," from 1 to 4 p.m., Saturday, March 14 in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building, Crocker Lane.
“It will be about bees, bees, bees,” said Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum and professor of entomology at UC Davis. The event is free and open to the public. Visitors can converse with bee specialists and view displays of bees from all over the world. Family activities are also planned.
Of the 20,000 bee species identified worldwide, some 4000 are found in the United States, and 1600 in California. The most recognizable, of course, is the honey bee, but it is not a native. European colonists brought it here (Jamestown colony) in 1622. The honey bee didn't arrive in California until 1853.
Bees play a profound role in shaping the world we live in, but many species remain strangers to us, according to native pollinator specialist and Bohart Museum associate Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis and a co-author of California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists.
Copies of the California Bees and Blooms (Heyday Books) and Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton Press), also co-authored by Thorp, will be available in the gift shop.
“Nature has programmed bees to build nests and supply their young with nutritious pollen and nectar, and their unique methods for collecting these resources are fascinating to observe, the authors wrote. "Their lives are dictated by season, weather and access to preferred flower types and nesting habitat.”