Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Picking Out Nectar and Pollen Plants

 I was fending off the bumbling bees yesterday morning in an attempt to try to tackle the garden before the heat made it too uncomfortable to work. The bonus to being a mile above sea level in an arid location is every night the temperatures drop 30 degrees or more. The cool crisp air buys me a few hours where the only pollinators are squash bees and bumble bees as the other pollen trollops need more heat to make the journey. Great sleeping weather.. bland tomatoes.. really sweet corn.. always a trade off I suppose.

 The rains are scarce this year, the reservoir having dropped over 7 feet and several small streams in the area turned to dust, I have made sure to offer a water source for the bees. Yesterday the pan dried out and I went to refill it only to be amazed at suddenly dozens of honeybees pounce for a drink. Most of the day it was a nonstop cluster of honeybees and wasps. The bees drink from one tray and the wasps have claimed the others. 

 I paid more attention that day and noticed the honeybees were sticking to the basil, melons, squash, chives, and mints.. but mostly ignoring the rest. I wondered if it had to do with the nutritional content of the pollen, so I started to do some research.

 They are after the nectar.. not the pollen. All this time I never once stopped to consider the fact that some flowers are primarily a pollen source and others are a nectar source, with a few that offer both. It was a moment where I just was amazed at how I could have missed something like that.. it suddenly seemed so glaringly obvious.

 Not all of the nectar producers are of equal caliber either.. while rain or irrigation can dilute the flowers' offerings, not all flowers produce nectar all day long. Some are like a sprinkler system on a timer and produce nectar when the right elements are triggered. 

 Quality and nutritional content of the pollen and the nectar depends on the environmental factors, in particular.. the soil. As well the amino acids vary depending on species when it comes to pollen. The amino acids are converted into proteins for the bees and much of the nutritional content they need- minerals, vitamins, protein, etc. are in the pollen.. the nectar is the energy. Pollen gets eaten as well as the surplus gets created into bee bread which can last for up to 2 years. The bee bread actually goes through a type of lacto-fermentation and in that process vitamins D and E are created. (Who woulda guessed bees pickle their pollen?)

 While I started out trying to find the nutritional values of various pollen plants, I ended up on tangent after interesting tangent. Urban bees have somewhat of a benefit due to an assortment or plantings to pick from, rural bees (in particular ones used for commercial pollination of monocultures) can not be quite as healthy due to the lack of variety.

 So I have yet to create the list, but am gathering information on it yet from as many sources as possible. Trying to keep track of what blooms when in the garden in order to attempt to keep the attention of pollinators all season is always a good thing. By all season I mean from spring clear through 1st frost. 

 The first few years in this location taught me not to take pollinators for granted. It has been a work in progress over the years to finally have the variety and plethora that now visit. Judging from the size of the last batch of bumblebees (the ones in spring are smaller than the ones in the late summer/ fall.. how well the larvae are fed determine how robust the workers will be).. these kids did pretty good. 

 Last thing.. I found NASA's BEE SITE which looks very interesting to say the least. Using scales to monitor how a hive is doing and it's production (it seems that even peeking into a hive for a few minutes can disrupt the girls productivity for a whole day).. they are tracking climate and ecological fluctuations. Makes sense.. as bloom times would be altered by climate changes and bees are a creature more easily observed due to their hive being maintained by keepers. Tracking the hive's condition by weighing it seems brilliant to me. Tracking the production over the years would give a rather good idea when a flow starts and is finished. I guess I am just one of those that likes to know what to expect.


  1. The problem is that the scales are not cheap otherwise I would put scales on my hives for sure.

    As to the pollen / nectar thing the girls need both and depending on time of year will send differing numbers out for them.

    I noticed my girls dearly loved squash and zucchini flowers (male and female) cucumbers and watermelon but I never once saw them on beans, tomato or pepper flowers.

    I have also rarely seen them on my strawberries, dill, tansey, merrigolds or the local thistle. Yet bumble bees frequent all of them. In fact the only plants I have observed bumblers and honey bees both hitting have been basil, cucumber and tick seed sunflowers.

    Right now my girls are getting mostly goldenrod nectar but a large number of them are picking up a cream colored and bright yellow pollens. The pollen is needed to feed the larva for the winter workers.

    If you have honey bees hitting your watering hole then they will continue to use that location exclusively until it dries up. Once they find one they don't seem to switch until forced to.

  2. Yep.. fully realize they need both nectar and pollen. I just noticed a sudden shift from where they were on cosmos and sunflowers heavily to a shift where they are obsessed with nectar producing flowers. Overdrive to build up honey reserves. In spring they were all over the chives, but ignored it until recently. The chives are in a huge mound and allowed to spread as it wants (patch is now about 1' by 1.5', then there is a huge pot of them. They just kept sparcely putting out blooms after the spring flush).
    When they were in pollen mode.. they were even all over the tomatillos and tomatoes. Crazy dry out here which may be making these behaviors more intense.

    I experimented with the water sources. There is something in the vermicompost + kelp fertilizer that the girls are after. All organic, if it makes them happy then I'll keep offering it.

    My Mom has 2 feed scales. They are really old however, so no idea what condition they are in. Estate sale and the other was from the old neighbor that passed.

  3. I have so many other pollinators that the garden is a mad scramble with all of them trying to stock up. While they are all very very interesting to me.. ever since I "pet" the drinking honeybee.. they really won me over. Then your endeavor, makes it tempting to contemplate owning a hive.

    Long way off for me though, but in the meantime planting a mix so that there is variety of both nectar heavy and pollen heavy plants for the whole season is what I will keep in mind. While I like flowers, I love flowers that have a purpose. Bee forage provides an excuse to browse other sections of the seed catalogs. :)

  4. Well honestly bee keeping is not very expensive if your not going for growth and honey production. The biggest cost is just the starter nuc bees.

  5. It is on the list.. the very long long list.

    First things first.. and praying winter kicks in a bit late this year so I can tackle prepping some plots.