S.F. bees have plenty to eat year-round


Q: I bought your book “Golden Gate Gardening” specifically for the vegetable planting calendar, which I love and consult all the time. Now I have a beehive, and I would like to be sure to have something blooming for them all the time.

Some times of year are very bad nectar-wise, and I want to help out. I have not been able to find a month-by-month calendar showing bee plant bloom times. If you can create or direct me to one, I would be most grateful.

A: I haven’t located a month-by-month calendar for honeybees, but I have learned your Bay Area beehive is likely to be fine without careful plantings.

Paul Koski, a San Francisco urban beekeeper, reports that, “In our Mediterranean climate, there are so many plants and trees from around the world that we don’t seem to need to plant anything. Whatever they are foraging on, we find they seem to get enough to eat. Many plants, some native, many non-native, provide nectar, or both pollen and nectar.”

He says that in the Central Valley, where fewer plants bloom in winter, beekeepers leave more honey in the hive for the bees to eat, or may provide an alternate sugar source, but San Francisco bees probably have enough to eat all winter without special treatment.

Koski points out that your garden will provide, in any case, only a small part of your bees’ diet, and many of the plants your bees feed on through the year may be far from your garden. (Honeybees commonly fly a mile and back on a foraging trip, but can fly to sources 3 to 4 miles away if necessary.) Hives are often placed on roofs, such as in the roof garden of The Chronicle, but even a bare roof will work fine.

Koski cites as important local honeybee food sources Algerian ivy, eucalyptus, street trees, fruit trees, wild blackberry, poison oak. Yes, poison oak, one of the most common of native shrubs in our wildlands, as any hiker can tell you! What is nasty or nice to us is not necessarily so to a bee. They just want the pollen or the nectar.

Garden flowers may be showy, but not the right shape for a honeybee. Double flowers often have their extra petals at the expense of the stamens that would have provided pollen.

Algerian ivy blooms in late summer and fall, to the chagrin of those who would like to keep its seeds out of wildlands. Some eucalyptus blooms as early as December. Poison oak is blooming by March or April. Wild blackberries, mostly the non-native ‘Himalaya’ variety, bloom in the center of the summer, when bees are feeding the most larvae.

Other locally important bee plants are weedy wild radish, wild mustard and yellow star thistle; native coffee berry (Rhamnus californica), buckwheats and sages. Bees gather nectar and pollen from California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica), manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) and toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia).

We think of bees as needing showy petals. True, white, yellow or blue flowers often attract them, but they also find what they need on plants without showy flowers. They gather pollen and nectar from coyote brush, a native shrub with tiny pale blossoms in fall and winter. (Most coyote brush from nurseries will be male plants, which provide pollen. Bees get nectar from female plants, which they find mostly in the wild.) Honeybees even collect pollen from redwoods, which have cones rather than flowers.

However, if you wish to attract honeybees to your flower garden, some good choices are rosemary, lavender, sages, African blue basil, cleome, sunflower, Mexican sunflower (tithonia), borage and honeywort (Cerinthe purpurascens). Rosemary is an especially good choice because it blooms fall to spring. Scouting bees prefer to bring a team of worker bees to a nice-sized patch of a flower, at least a square yard. This could be a single plant of rosemary or African blue basil, or it could be groups of borage or cerinthe plants.



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Been a Beekeeper for 20 years
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