This is the time of year you might spot the beautiful, majestic dance of the honeybees
Most swarming activity takes place from April through May. Bees don't swarm during the rain, so this year we will most likely see the time frame pushed back a few weeks.
Honey bees, Apis mellifera, swarm for one of two reasons. Either the hive has become too crowded so they split into two groups (or more), with one group remaining in the existing hive. Or they abscond. In this case, all bees including the queen abandon the existing hive completely due to lack of food or water, parasite or disease infestation, frequent disturbance by humans or animals, weather changes, poor ventilation, or problems with the queen.
Western honey bees aren't nearly as likely to abscond as African honey bees, (a hybrid of South American and European bees known as Africanized honey bees), which tend to swarm more and be a bit more defensive as well.
Worker bees are able to detect when it's time to swarm due to overcrowding of the hive or the lack of pheromone production from the queen. In preparation for the swarm, the workers will deprive the queen of food in order to slim her down so she can fly. They will also agitate and run her around in order to prevent her from laying many eggs. If they are going to swarm, they will create new queen cells and allow the queen to lay eggs so a new queen can emerge and take over the hive.
Besides making honey, honey bees are essential for pollinating approximately 90 percent of our crops globally. Many of our favorite foods like almonds, most of our cherries, apples, blueberries, and other fruit and nut crops wouldn't exist without these hard-working bees.
According to Deb Conway with GirlzWurk in Saratoga, “Honey bees aren't usually a problem, as they normally set up their hives in tree cavities, shrubs, light poles, or abandoned buildings. However, they can become a nuisance when they take up residence in the walls of your home, garden shed or in your water meter.”
That's when it's time to call someone like Deb who can come and rescue the hive.
Last year was a particularly bad year for honey bees. Some beekeepers reported up to a 90 percent loss in their hives in 2018. Causes for this include varroa mite infestations, increased pathogens due to the warm weather, increased use of pesticides, and a decrease in diversity of food sources.
So, what can we do about a swarm? “If you leave the bees alone, they will leave you alone.,” said Dr. Elina L. Niño, a honey bee expert at UC Davis. “It only takes a few hours, or at most a day or two, for them to find and settle into their new home.”
Bees, as well as our other important and beneficial insects, are struggling. Our tendency to develop land and our extensive use of harmful chemicals are wiping out their natural habitat.
The public can truly make a difference by ceasing to use pesticides and by planting an array of beautiful, attractant plants such as ceanothus, lavender, echium, rosemary, penstemon and mint (mint is only recommended in containers because it is so invasive). For more bee-friendly plant ideas, visit UC Davis Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven.
Let's all commit to creating safe and nurturing spaces in our backyards, gardens (and yes, even on those balconies and decks) where our much-needed pollinators and beneficial insects can not only survive, but thrive!
For help in relocating a swarm or hive, or to contact a local beekeeper, visit the Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild, which has information about Santa Clara as well as surrounding counties.
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
This article first appeared in the April 16, 2019 issue of the San Jose Mercury News./h3>
I have to tell you, I literally hit pay dirt. I planted one Echium fastuosum, “Star of Madeira”, and it is not only a major bee-magnet, it is absolutely stunning! With hundreds of profuse bluish-purple flowers atop tall spikes that tower above the attractive, variegated foliage, it has become the focal plant in my garden. It is also a favorite for my hummingbirds and butterflies.
When I planted it about three years ago from a 2-gallon pot, it was about a foot tall. Now It is now nearly 7 feet tall and about 5 feet across. It would actually be bigger but I continue to prune it so that I have room for the apples and avocados that are planted nearby.
There are more than 60 species of Echium, some are native to North America, others are from Europe and the Macaroneisa. Although some are grown as food for humans, butterflies, or moths, most Echium are grown as ornamental plants.
Probably the most common varietal you will find in the Bay Area is Echium candicans, “Pride of Madeira”. Its silvery-green foliage sports masses of very blue/purple blooms from early spring to mid-summer. It can easily grow 8 feet tall by 6 feet wide and is a heavy self-seeder, so you may want to dig up and gift most of those starts.
Echium amoenum, “Red Feathers”, is for those of you who want something a little more on the compact side. They grow only about a foot and half tall by about 6-to-8 inches wide. This plant is known to thrive on neglect, is suitable for clay soil and can handle cooler climates. The red feathery blooms attract an array of bees and butterflies. Although it is known to be short-lived, it will reseed itself if you resist deadheading all of the dried blooms.
Echium vucanorum, is a truly beautiful, and quite rare, white blooming varietal. It is native to a tiny West African island named Fogo. It will quickly grow to 6 feet high and wide and may do best with some afternoon shade in hotter areas.
And for maybe one of the coolest plants you can grow, try Echium wildpretii. It is a biennial from the Canary Islands. In its second year, it will send up tall spikes (up to 7 feet) of gorgeous dark pink/reddish flowers. Let it fully mature so that it can reseed and keep on going … the bees and birds love this one!
I believe every garden and every landscape should have at least one bee-friendly Echium. Most need a good bit of room to thrive and grow and at least six hours of sunlight per day. They are very drought-tolerant but do need regular watering for the first couple of years in order to get established. They prefer well-draining soil, but some can tolerate relatively poor conditions.
Many Bay Area nurseries carry several options. You can also do a Google-search of Echium to find unique and rare varieties. This may become your new favorite plant.
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
Photo courtesy of Rebecca Epsen
This article first appeared in the April 22, 2018 print issue of the San Jose Mercury News.
Reports of Africanized bees in Contra Costa County, which turned out to be ordinary European honeybees, has people thinking a lot about bees and their place in our gardens.
Bees are responsible for pollinating nearly 30 percent of all the food we eat. Their cross-pollination also is crucial for the survival of most of our native plants.
"The diversity and abundance of bees in your backyard varies greatly on the diversity of flowers available," says Robbin Thorp, entomology professor emeritus at UC Davis. "Help encourage bees into your backyard and garden with a variety that blooms all year long."
Thorp recommends growing lavenders, rosemary, salvias, ceanothus, ribes, lupines and California poppies. For pops of color add asters, sunflowers, cosmos, penstemon, cuphea and nepetas. Plant herbs that both you and your bees will enjoy such as parsley, chives, dill, basil, borage, mint and fennel.
Here are some of the more common bees you'll likely find in your yard.
Honeybees, which are ¾-inch and can vary in color from blonde to black, represent only a small fraction of the total bee population but they play a critical role in pollinating more than 40 varieties of fruit, nut, vegetable and seed crops valued at more than $1.5 billion per year.
Bumblebees are up to 1-inch long. They are more round, and are black or yellow with white or orange bands. Bumblebees are social and, although similar to honeybees, generally have much smaller colonies. They produce only enough honey to provide for themselves and are not used for commercial production.
Carpenter bees are shiny, black and as large as a bumblebee. They drill into wood, a trait that gives them their name, to create tunnels where they breed and raise their young. Although you might see carpenter bees drilling into the side of your home or other wood structure, they will seldom do significant damage. Make sure all surfaces and your siding are painted as they prefer untreated wood. However, if you suspect they are doing significant damage, you can treat the holes with insecticidal spray or dust. Wait two to three days, make sure the holes are empty, and then plug them with steel wool and caulking.
Leafcutter bees are small, smoke-colored bees with pale abdominal bands. They are productive pollinators, often doing 20 times more pollinating than honeybees. They are passive, solitary bees that need bare ground in order to nest and lay their eggs. For this reason, don't practice wall-to-wall mulching. Leave some bare spots for the bees.
While some may be upset by seeing a bee swarm, Elina Niño with the Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis, urges people to remain calm.
"If you see a swarm or nest of bees, don't panic," she says. "Just move away as quickly as you can and call your local extension office or beekeeping association. Don't swat or try to kill them; a dead bee can release an alarm pheromone that could mark you as a potential threat to other honey bees."