Guest column: The buzz about bees | Opinion

In the February 1 edition of the Headlight Herald, Carla Albright had a Garden Matters column on planting for pollinators. I decided to continue this discussion, but from the point of view of the bees. You probably know that about a third of the food we eat requires pollination, but did you know that these pollinated fruits, vegetables and grains generate 90% of the nutrients we need? We would be in a sad and unhealthy state without pollinators.

There are over six hundred different kinds of bees in Oregon alone! All but honey bees are called “solitary bees”. This is because for these species, only the queen survives the winter. These bees don’t need a lot of pollen or honey. Mason bees are actually better pollinators than honey bees, but they are only around from March to June and do not fly more than about five hundred feet. So that leaves us with the hardworking bees.

Bees forage for pollen, nectar, water and propolis. We will only talk about pollen today. Pollen is the bee’s protein, amino acids, lipids, micronutrients, enzymes and so on. (FYI: honey provides their carbohydrates.) Remember that a colony is made up of a queen, 15% drones which are all males and tens of thousands of workers, all females . From six days to eleven days of age, all worker bees become nurse bees. They are the only bees that need protein but they need it to make royal or worker jelly which is the only thing the very young larvae can eat. No protein? No royal or worker’s jelly. No new bees. The colony dies.

Flowers attract bees by their color and pattern but more than that by their scent. Bees smell through their antennae and have a 50% stronger sense of smell than the average dog! Honey bees are “flower-faithful”. Nature knows that to produce flower seeds, the male pollen of a plant must be attached to the female stamens of the same plant species. Thus, the bees will only go to one species of plant during a single trip. They can go up to fifty or a hundred plants, but they will all be bachelor buds or wild roses or squash blossoms or apples or plums. Pollen collects on their body hair and is brushed by bees on their hind legs in what are called pollen baskets. A bee can carry pollen up to 35% of its own body weight.

Spring pollens that bees love include willows, alders, skunk cabbage, dandelions, mustard, fruit trees, and maples, to name a few. In the summer they have berries and vegetables. But bees need pollen throughout the warm parts of the year. Sometimes, especially after the spring flowering of trees, beekeepers need to feed their bees “pollen patties” to ensure the colony continues to grow.

It’s easy to imagine bees pollinating trees and flowering plants, but it surprised me a bit to realize that they pollinate carrots, broccoli, onions, and all kinds of grains and root vegetables. We don’t usually see the flowers of a carrot or onion plant, but think about it. That packet of vegetable seeds you buy at the store in the spring only happens because pollinators have pollinated flowering carrots and onions, etc. somewhere, maybe Madras or eastern Oregon.

The greatest use of honey bees is in California and it is happening right now. More than a million (yes, a million!) beehives are put on tractor-trailers from across the country and transported to California for three weeks to pollinate the almond trees. No bees? No almonds. Commercial beekeepers had to “wake up” their honey bees in December by feeding them pollen patties so that the colony would grow bigger and bigger and be ready for almonds in February. They didn’t exactly wake them up because bees don’t fall asleep and don’t sleep. But the queen usually does not lay eggs in winter. She waits for the pollen to arrive, which is when commercial beekeepers or anyone else feeds a colony pollen.

So the next time you eat an apple, cherry, almond or carrot, thank a bee!

You will really enjoy seeing the annuals, perennials, grasses, trees that the bees love. Go to the website to the section titled foraging and you will find photos and growing instructions for honey bee favourites.

About Sherri Flowers

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