Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Apiaries 2

Wyethia angustifolia with the mason bee Hoplitis (Megachilidae)
We are in the midst of nuc season, one of the busiest times of the year for honeybee breeders equating to 12+ hour days and few days off, if any. Yet amidst the perceived chaos it is worth taking the time to appreciate the beauty surrounding us. Honeybees, native bees, and other pollinators are critical components to the web of life, inhabiting the near-base of the food web and providing invaluable services to the life around them. Pollinating insects, besides providing the important and apparent role of pollination, facilitate the growth of food for us and other wildlife (including livestock), occasionally provide pest control services (particularly wasps, flies, and beetles), and are food sources themselves to other creatures like other insects, spiders, and birds. Pollinators (the epithet does not do them justice) are the keys to the success of life, and are the seed from which beauty and wonder can flourish. So as nice as it is to stop and smell the flowers, I extend that further to say stop and watch the pollinators.

Central Point, OR
Revisiting one of our smaller apiaries on a family farm and pear orchard in Central Point, I am struck by the beauty of the landscape, and I feel fortunate to have found my way into such a profession. To recap, I was recently employed by a local (and I mean local, mere minutes from my house) commercial beekeeping operation that specializes in breeding (see Old Sol Apiaries).  We have apiaries across Jackson and Josephine counties in a variety of landscapes. I have taken a particular interest in sharing these highly photographic apiaries and some of the local flora, a handful of which are native and a handful of which are of interest to honeybees, or other pollinators.

A native ground nesting bee (tribe Halictini) in Eschscholzia californica
California's state flower is frequently encountered here in Southwestern Oregon. When blooming en masse they can attract a range of bees and occasionally flies. Honeybees have been working them this year, at least in my garden. They can be a bit weedy and will easily get out of hand in a small garden, and are best seeded into a field or wherever they are allowed to drift. They are useful plants, however, due to their tolerance of heat and drought, and should be planted wherever pollinator forage is deficient such as where grass competition is high.

Lasioglossum on Hypochaeris radicata
Catsear, or sometimes known as false dandelion, is a noxious weed from Europe. It is a perennial which grows from a thick taproot that, if broken, forms new crowns and thus is very hard to eradicate. The seeds are distributed in a similar fashion as with true dandelion (Taraxacum) which is by wind, and also likely by bird as I have observed birds eating the seeds. Fallowed fields on the farm in Central Point support a multitude of the plants which although worrisome for the large mass of seed which is inevitably going to be produced is a boon for pollinators. The flowers bloom from late spring to early autumn. Flowers open in the morning and close if it gets too hot, a mechanism that extends the life of the flower and prevents nectar from evaporating. Myriad bees and other pollinators visit the flowers, including honeybees.

Rosa rubiginosa
The particular apiary in Central Point specializes in pears, so they have a massive, yet brief, bloom earlier in the year. Of secondary or tertiary importance, I speculate, is that of the roses. The proprietor has a sizable rose garden, though most are probably of marginal honeybee-interest at best due to the highly doubled flowers that can occasionally prohibit bees from entering the flowers at all, and the scarcity of stamens since most if not all of them have been replaced by petals. Some wild and or feral roses inhabit the farm, including the nonnative Rosa rubiginosa (syn. Rosa eglanteria). This is a European native, distinguished from our native roses by the curved rather than straight thorns, and the extrafloral glands which emit a sweet scent when brushed. Rose pollen is highly valued by bees of all types, and of high importance for brood-rearing for honeybees.

Rosa rubiginosa
Large stands of these introduced roses inhabit much of the land throughout the region, including this very large stand in Ashland. I can only imagine the thousands of bees (probably a very small guess compared to the actual number) working this field in peak bloom. Roses in general give no nectar, or at least no source anywhere can confirm the presence of nectaries on roses. My own examination of dissected rose flowers has yielded no nectaries. The fragrance is from an oil found in the petals (and other parts occasionally) which contains a number of constituents, one of which is geraniol, an alcohol also found in Pelargonium and some species of Narcissus.

Ashland, OR. Snow capped Mt. Ashland can be seen to the far right.
One of my favorite apiaries to work, this Ashland apiary is in a prime location for forage as evident by the honey bound nucs which have required constant attention by removing fattened and heavy deep honey frames in exchange for drawn comb for the queens to lay in. Our ideal five frame nuc is composed of two or three frames of brood, one of food (pollen, nectar, and capped honey) and a mostly empty frame of drawn comb which gives them room to grow before they are sold to the customer who will transfer them to a proper hive. If they run out of space they will swarm, but we also aim to sell nucs backed with bees. It's a balancing act! 

Achyrachaena mollis seed head
A few weeks ago, in the first installment of this new series of posts (see Apiaries), I showed the opened flower of Achyrachaena mollis, known by the strange common name "blow wives" whose proper identification had initially eluded me. Since I have returned, the characteristic seed heads confirm the ID. This wildflower is known better by what is shown in this image rather than the flower itself, and it is likely assumed that the pappus attached to the seeds (the white part) are the actual flowers. The seeds, visible here, are black and the pappus are structures that help the seeds blow away from the parent plant, similar to Taraxacum (dandelion) and Hypochaeris (catsear), two common and familiar weeds.

Achyrachaena mollis and Vicia villosa cover the hillside above and around this Ashland apiary
Clearly, the seeds of Achyrachaena offer nothing to honeybees, yet the hairy vetch that shares this bank is of high importance to honeybees. In this case it seems a nonnative is living in harmony with the natives without too much displacement, though perhaps i am speaking too soon and it has already displaced something or will in the future. With two nonnatives, Vicia villosa and Apis mellifera, supporting each other I often quietly question the long term implications of our collective decisions, however well intentioned.

Lupinus microcarpus var. microcarpus
Chick lupine or Lupinus microcarpus is an annual lupine that is much more common in California than in Oregon. There are three recognized varieties, the one shown being the type while the other two are endemic to California. Bees, particularly bumblebees and large solitary bees are the primary pollinators of such flower forms, mostly because the smaller bees aren't usually strong enough to pry the flowers open to access the rewards. Honeybees occasionally visit lupines, but if there is other, easier accessed, resources available they'll probably forgo the difficult flowers for the easier ones.

Clarkia gracilis
A few of the slender clarkias inhabit this Ashland hillside, either preexisting or planted by birds. Honeybees may have an interest in this species, but the relative scarcity of it on this hillside suggests it is more likely visited by native solitary bees.

Rogue River, OR
One of the larger apiaries I have been to, this one sits in a grassy field surrounded by mixed coniferous woodland. Typically conifer forests offer less diversity of flowering plants, particularly deficient in flowers of interest to honeybees. This region seems to offer a lot of pollinator forage early in the year with an increasing dearth as the year progresses. Most of the native pollinator diversity is at its peak in spring and the first half of summer, so the dearth isn't surprising. The current nectar flow we are coming into is due to the blackberry, Rubus armeniacum, colloquially known as the Himalayan giant blackberry (a misleading name since it's from the Southern Caucasus of Asia and Europe). Blackberry bloom is brief but intense, sometimes being compressed into a two week period of ideal conditions similar to that of many of the fruit trees in the same family (Rosaceae).

Triteleia crocea with Lasioglossum sp., a native solitary bee.
This area, close to my house, is home to an exceptional assortment of geophytes. Triteleia, Dichelostemma, and Brodiaea, all of the same family and in a nearly constant of taxonomic confusion, light up the landscape in occasionally small isolated patches as the year progresses. They are usually of high value to native bees and butterflies, occasionally honeybees if growing in the proper density. Triteleia crocea is often found in shady forest edges and clearings, rarely in full sun. The pollination ecology of the genus as a whole is not fully understood except for a few species, though bees are suspected as the primary pollinators. I was fortunate to capture a small native mining bee, Lasioglossum sp., collecting pollen. I have also seen small dipterans on the flowers, though their effectiveness as pollinators of this plant is a mystery.

Triteleia hendersonii
My favorite species, the somewhat uncommon Triteleia hendersonii, is blooming in grassy yet sunny forest clearings. Last year during severe drought, some of these reached nearly 20" in height. This year, perhaps in response to competition from neighboring plants in result of the high volume of rain we've had this year, T. hendersonii are much shorter and more difficult to spot. I have not seen any pollinators on this species, and no published data is available on their pollination ecology, though their morphology suggests bee pollination. Time, and luck, will eventually (hopefully) allow me to discover the pollinators of this species.

Triteleia hyacinthina with Trichodes ornatus, the ornate checkered beetle.
I recently found a sizable patch of Triteleia hyacinthina in my neighborhood growing in a small sunny meadow at the side of the road. Due to my intense work schedule I have been unable to sit and observe (or sit at all, for that matter) yet I had a few minutes of free time in the afternoon to take this picture. Unlike the other two species I've encountered here, this species is the most prolific and seemingly the most likely species to attract honeybees in the area. I chanced upon this specimen with a hidden ornate checkered beetle taking shelter in one of the closing flowers for the evening. Trichodes ornatus are typical visitors to many flowers for food and shelter as adults, and kleptoparasites of ground nesting bees as larvae.

Toxicoscordion micranthum (syn. Zigadenus micranthus) with Trichodes ornatus
A genus that has fascinated me for years, all parts of Toxicoscordion are toxic to animals, including bees. Nectar and pollen of this genus is harmful to bees, except perhaps those who specialize on Toxicoscordion if there are any (I suspect there are). However, for the past three or four years that I have observed this species I have never seen any bees on the flowers, but I have reliably seen a variety of beetles on them suggesting they may be of importance to the plants.

Apiary at a state park
Our state park apiary does quite well, despite the lack of bee forage directly observable by me. State parks seem to be managed primarily for human (recreational) use rather than for wildlife, and this one is quite short on visible flowers. However, it is located near the Rogue River which is home to a vast array of flowering trees and shrubs, as well as miles and miles of blackberry that has undoubtedly and completely taken over a theoretically depressing amount of native riparian natives. Honeybees do great here, however, and during my recent visit to this yard I observed a number of native Andrena (ground nesting solitary bees) on or around the honeybee hives suggesting there is enough forage to support a variety of pollinators.

Rogue River, OR
This is a choice location just outside of Rogue River, right next to the Rogue River itself. Besides the usual resource rich riparian forage (Salix and Alnus, for example), a number of natives grace this location that may be of interest to honeybees including Amsinckia menziesii and Holodiscus discolor. The sandy riverbank is also a prime location for bees to gather water.

Eriogonum compositum
One native that is usually found growing in dry, sunny, rocky banks above the local rivers and streams is Eriogonum compositum. This is a large plant, with a three foot spread and height, with creamy eight inch umbels held above the greenish-white basal foliage.

Eriogonum compositum with dermestid beetles
Upon encountering this species in a similar environment last year, I observed the ornate checkered beetle, Trichodes ornatus, on an umbel. This year I observed at least three types of beetles including tiny dermastid beetles (aka carpet beetles) and a lone honeybee visiting the flowers. I would expect a large stand of this species to be of importance to honeybees.

Rogue River, OR
A secluded yet scenic apiary sits at the edges of a local farm. Various wildflowers have since bloomed and faded here, including the small annual Lupinus bicolor and bulbous Camassia, the latter of which was growing in a shady ditch though was nonetheless visited by honeybees. This is one of the most wildflower rich apiaries I have seen, hosting many treasures including the rare rose relative Horkelia daucifolia.

Wyethia angustifolia with the mason bee Hoplitis (Megachilidae)
On the gravel road leading to this apiary are a number of patches of Wyethia angustifolia, a sunflower relative with large basal leaves which give them the common name mules ears. In years past I have observed solitary sweat bees (Agapostemon sp.) which are metallic green with a striped abdomen, and this year I have seen bumblebees and other native bees visit the flowers. Hoplitis is solitary bee which uses various materials and nesting sites, both above and below ground, and builds walls between each brood cell. Unlike honeybees, most solitary bees don't excrete wax but use specific materials around them to build their nests and brood cells, most of which are linear with a row of cells. They are called solitary bees because each female creates and provisions her own nest.

Lotus pinnatus with Bombus (a bumblebee worker)
 A pea relative which prefers boggy conditions which exist adjacent to the apiary. The floral tubes are probably a bit too long for honeybees to reach, but are perfectly adapted for bumblebee pollination. The lower white petals (aka the wings) are the landing pads for the bumbles as seen in the photo.

Lotus pinnatus
The plants stand up to 18" tall and are topped with these pinwheel inflorescences.

Silene hookeri
One charming native dots shady roadsides and otherwise coniferous forest edges, yet is likely of little consequence if any to bees of any kind. Silene hookeri is a diminutive yet coveted member of the genus, particularly adored by rock gardeners and Oregon native plant enthusiasts alike. Many silenes are considered to be moth pollinated, though the only insects I've ever witnessed on these flowers were flies.

Silene hookeri
This is quite a variable species, individuals ranging in color and flower shape. Most are what people would call "pink" though some verge on white. In California there is a variety with extremely deeply divided flowers that are nearly white.

Silene hookeri
The flowers open before the stamens emerge, though I do not know the significance of this.

Sidalcea glaucescens
A hollyhock relative that is occasionally visited by bees is the checker mallow. I have not seen honeybees visit these flowers, though I have seen a variety of native bees in them. I have seen the males of some unidentified species sleep in the flowers as they close at night, offering a refuge.

At the base of Lower Table Rock
As opposed to the magnificent diversity that inhabit the Table Rocks, the surrounding landscape is very much engulfed in agricultural weeds like Dipsacus fullonum and Vicia villosa, the latter of which blooming now and an excellent source of food for the honeybees. The landscape as a whole is breathtakingly beautiful, but being acquainted with what is native and what is introduced has tainted my ability to appreciate the pieces, therefore when enjoying the beauty I try not to look down.

A honeybee in bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis
Field bindweed, an incredibly successful weed from Eurasia which has managed to annoy both farmers and homeowners alike. The plants simultaneously exhibit a vining and sprawling habit, and when conditions are prime it can form large masses which intertwine and topple surrounding plants, even choking them out in some instances. Attempting to pull them by hand or with machinery is futile as they are weak and snap easily, swiftly regenerating.

Convolvulus arvensis in the apiary
Alas, the flowers can be quite attractive and are of interest to many pollinators, including honeybees right in the apiary.

Tragopogon dubius
Yellow salsify is another European introduction that has been incredibly successful at spreading across the United States. This seems surprising to me since I have yet to see it growing en masse, rather a flower here, a flower there. It seems that it displaces few natives due to this. Pollinators, particularly some solitary bees, visit the flowers yet I have yet to observe a honeybee on it despite its presence on a variety of our apiaries.

Sunset at Table Rock


  1. You suggest those hairy vetches and honey bees aren't displacing anything. Can you imagine the land the vetches cover and the resources they use not being used by other plants if those vetches weren't there? Can you imagine no insects using the resources that the honey bees are using if the honey bees weren't there?

    1. Stewart, this is true. I was speaking about that particular bank which had some vetch although not much. In the section on our Table Rock apiary I mentioned how vetch and other nonnatives dominate the landscape. I expressed the same concerns as you when I wrote: "With two nonnatives, Vicia villosa and Apis mellifera, supporting each other I often quietly question the long term implications of our collective decisions, however well intentioned."

  2. There are two sides to every coin. Non native plants are here to stay... for good, just like non native people. It would behoove one to accept this reality and manage resources accordingly. There are some studies that show honeybees and native pollinator habitat overlapping leads to a net increase in forage for both and some studies suggest otherwise. At the end of the day one must consider the fact honeybees have become a keystone species, an indicator species, and essential to the survival of humans.

    1. Undeniably wherever humans go we upset the natural balance by inadvertently or intentionally introducing something foreign. Over time, perhaps geological time, things will eventually find equilibrium again. I have seen a study on how the presence of native bees increases the efficiency of honeybees on a crop (I think it was almonds) by forcing them to cross rows more often, though I haven't heard the reverse. I'd love to see those studies you speak of.

    2. In the days before monocultures, native bees were all a farm needed for all of their pollination requirements. Now farms are essentially food deserts after the flowers fade, and can't possibly support enough native pollinators thus making honeybees a required part of our survival.

  3. Do you have recommendations for flowers to plant to support honeybees? I have a lot of the native flowers you mention, as well as borage, lavender, sage, and other herbs and vegetables. My little farm supports a lot of native pollinators, but I've just added my first honeybee hive and want to make sure they're satisfied, too.

    1. I think you're on the right track, Mediterranean herbs (especially mint relatives like thyme, lavender, and Agastache) are great for honeybees but must be in abundance. Composites like sunflowers and Echinacea are good, as are borage relatives comfrey and Echium.

      Without knowing what region you're in, I'll offer these guidelines. Plant in large groups, bigger the better. Aim for a succession of blooms from late winter to late fall, if possible. Plants bloom at different times in different regions, and exposures. Grow everything from seed, it's much more cost effective and you'll have plants adapted to your microclimate. Choose natives over nonnative if possible. Lastly, experiment! I've found most "bee plant" lists to only be about 50% accurate in my garden, which is in part spurred my interest which led to this site and now my current occupation. If you google search "amateur anthecologist honeybee" you will find other plant suggestions, but your bees may or may not agree. Hope this helps, if you have any other questions please feel free to use the contact form (in desktop version)

    2. Scianna AugustineMay 30, 2016 at 5:54 PM

      I'm in Shady Cove - I got my first nuc from Old Sol at the Rogue River pickup a few weeks ago. Thanks for the advice!

    3. Cool! I'd definitely plant a lot of mid summer to fall flowers, the area seems to experience a dearth at that time. Echinacea is great for that, it flowers over a long period and is relatively easy from seed. Seed sown in situ in late fall germinates in the spring and flowers the second year with adequate moisture and low competition. Agastache foeniculum is also easy and accessible, flowers the first year if sown early in spring on the surface.


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