Currants, February Bee Plant of the Month

The Bee Gardener    By Christine Casey   February 2, 2015

From a human perspective, we don't often think of February as an important time for flowering plants, but for bees it's another matter. Honey bees are out foraging when it's sunny and over 55 degrees, while native bumble bees that become active early in the year are in need of pollen and nectar resources to grow their colonies. The solitary bee Osmia lignaria -- an important alternate pollinator in early fruit and nut crops -- is also active.

A group of native plants that provide resources for all these bees with their February flowers are the currants. The first to bloom is chaparral currant, Ribes malvaceum; we grow the cultivar 'Dancing Tassels' at the Haven. This plant starts to flower in January and will continue its showy display through February. In addition to bees, look for lots of hummingbirds on this plant.

Following close behind is fuchsia-flowered gooseberry, Ribes speciosum. Primarily a hummingbird plant, the photo shows how accessible the pollen is for small bees. We don't grow this at the Haven, as it has large thorns that could be a visitor hazard. It can be espaliered up a fence, where the thorns can serve as a living security system. Another consideration when siting this plant is that it copes with our summer heat by losing its leaves in July.

Next to bloom, and the most commonly planted...

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Bees and Drought

The Bee Gardener    By Christine Casey  July 28, 2014

How is the California drought affecting bees?  Many Haven visitors have asked that question. Drought affects bees in several ways; the good news is that we can provide some relief in our bee gardens. Some considerations:

Honey bees need water to cool the hive and to dilute the honey they feed to developing bees.  This is why it's essential to include a water source in your bee garden. See this previous Bee Gardener post for more information.

The honey bee-parasitic varroa mite, Varroa destructor, has had a devastating effect on honey bee health.  The good news is that multi-year droughts can reduce the mite's reproductive rate (Environ. Entomol. (2003) 32(6): 1305-1312).

Floral resources
Drought-stressed plants produce fewer, shorter-lasting flowers. Lack of adequate, high-quality forage has been identified in a USDA study as a major factor in bee health decline.

Less obvious than the absence of flowers is the quality of the food they provide.  In a study of squash plants subjected to simulated drought, it was determined that the daily pattern of nectar secretion was unaffected by drought.  The volume and concentration of nectar declined with the length of the simulated drought, however, indicating a negative effect of drought on the floral resource that bees depend on (Apidologie (2012) 43:1–16).

Many of our native bees are feeding specialists that will only use one species or genus of plant.  What happens if that plant suffers during drought? Many animals native to areas with regular dry periods have evolved diapause as a survival mechanism. A study of in bees in the southwestern US desert found that they were able to reliably use environmental cues to enter diapause when their plant resources were affected by drought (Proc. R. Soc. B (2013) 280: 20122703).

Effective use of limited water in the bee garden
Many communities are under mandatory water restrictions, and groundwater levels are at record lows throughout California. How do we balance this with the needs of these vital insect pollinators?

Chaparral currant losing its leaves

    Save the rest of this year's water for the plants that have yet to bloom.  Fall and winter are critical times for honey bee foraging to ensure ample honey stores for the winter.  In the Haven we are reducing irrigation to the plants that are finished blooming for the year so we can focus water use on the sunflowers, asters, sedums, and other plants that will bloom until frost.

  • Bee watering container made from a soaker hose
    Bee watering container made from a soaker hose
  • Provide an efficient water source.  The Haven's self-watering container made from a soaker hose runs on a timer.  This provides water for our bees while re-using the water for irrigating the plant in the container.

    Plant drought-tolerant bee plants for next year.  We have suggestions on the garden'sweb site.

 CA bumble bee on Cleveland sage

Your (not so) "bee-friendly" Plants

Pesticide Action Network     By Paul Towers      June 27, 2014

Bee-harming pesticides in our lavender and daisies? In the same week that an international body of scientists released a comprehensive global assessment of the harms of pesticides to bees, a new report shows that these very same pesticides are found in many of our backyard plants — at levels of concern — that are meant to support pollinators.

The report shows that 51% of garden plant samples purchased at top garden retailers (Home Depot, Lowe’s and Walmart) in 18 cities in the United States and Canada contain neonicotinoid (neonic) pesticides — a key driver of declining bee populations. Concerning levels of the pesticides were found in places like California’s San Francisco Bay Area and in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. In some cases, multiple neonics were found in the same plant, in the leaves, stalks or flowers.

Last year, we conducted a smaller version of the research project with Pesticide Research Institute and Friends of the Earth. And the good news is that some retailers are taking notice, including some home and garden stores like Bachman’s and BJ’s Wholesale Club, as well as grocers pledging to remove the pesticides from their shelves and supply chains.

The big players — Home Depot, Lowe’s and Walmart — have a lot more work to do as they shift industrial nursery growing practices to green, cutting-edge alternatives.

Impact of neonics

Neonics are a relatively new class of systemic pesticides that can be applied as seed coatings, as granules or sprayed on plants; they're taken up through the plant's vascular system and expressed in pollen and nectar. Even at sublethal doses they're toxic to bees and other pollinators.

But the science is clear: pesticides, particularly neonics, are playing a key role in bee declines.

That's the case for most of the levels found in nursery plants; they might not kill bees outright but they are increasingly linked to reproductive impairment, immune suppression, homing failure and impaired foraging — all factors that compound the other stressors bees face and contribute to their decline.

However, none of this is true if you ask neonic manufacturers like Bayer and Syngenta. They continue to spin and confuse the issue, downplaying the role their products play by obfuscating the science around pesticides and pollinators and attempting to re-focus public conversation on other bee stressors like mites. But the science is clear: pesticides, particularly neonics, are playing a key role in bee declines.

The “wake-up call” science report

Earlier this week, 29 independent scientists released the four-years-in the-making “Worldwide Integrated Assessment” on the impacts of neonics after reviewing hundreds of scientific papers. The report documents significant harms to honey bees and other pollinators, as well as entire ecosystems that serve as the underpinnings of our food system.

One of the report's lead authors summarized the situation as:

"Far from protecting food production the use of neonics is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it, imperiling the pollinators, habitat engineer and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem.”

Among the findings of the report:

  • Neonics are incredibly persistent, lingering in the soil up to several years,
  • The breakdown products or metabolites of neonics can be more toxic than their so-called “active” ingredients,
  • The current measures of the risks of neonics aren’t working and “conceal their true impact.”

My colleague and PAN’s staff scientist, Emily Marquez, PhD, says the findings should galvanize regulators in states and at the federal level:

“This report should be a final wake-up call for American regulators who have been slow to respond to the science. The weight of the evidence showing harm to bees and other pollinators should move EPA to restrict neonicotinoids sooner than later. And the same regulatory loopholes that allowed these pesticides to be brought to the market in the first place — and remain on the shelf — need to be closed.”

Communities creating bee havens

While President Obama announced the creation of a new federal task force to address bee declines last week, EPA and other federal agencies don’t have a good track record on the issues. Filling the void, states and local governments have been stepping up. My community — Sacramento — has used the opportunity to call for the city to become a pesticide-free "Honey Bee Haven." In a release today, the vice mayor even said protecting bees is essential to keep the city "prosperous." 

This follows similar actions by Eugene, OR earlier this year and Spokane, WA earlier this week to phase out bee-harming pesticides and prioritize bee health. And one neighborhood in Boulder, CO declared itself “bee-safe” earlier this month.

Bayer, Syngenta, Monsanto and other pesticide corporations have caught wind of these efforts and are continuing with aggressive public relations efforts. But no number of Bayer coloring books can color over the power of communities in action.

Learn more » Want to make your backyard or community a Honey Bee Haven? Visit for tips and tools — and to take the pledge to protect pollinators.

[For another view on the new Harvard Study and what's killing our bees see Randy Oliver's blog at:]

Spaced Out

By Christine Casey   May 19, 2014

“How many plants do I need?” “How should I space my plants?” are two of the common questions we hear at the Honey Bee Haven when visitors ask about designing their bee gardens. Among the factors ecologists use to evaluate how bees use a floral resource are patch size, floral diversity, and floral density.

Patch size is the area covered by the desired resource (flowering plants) in a habitat that is fragmented. Floral diversity is the number of different species of flowering plants in an area, while floral density is the number of flowering plants in an area.

For honey bees, patch size is key. The scout bees return to the hive and direct their sisters to a good resource. Honey bees are efficient foragers that will visit many flowers on one plant until they have a full load of pollen or nectar. By grouping all plants of a species into a singe patch rather than spreading them around the garden you help honey bees maximize the value of each trip to and from the hive. There is no hard and fast rule for a minimum patch size, although three feet square is an area often recommended by bee biologists.

Bumble bees, on the other hand, tend to move quickly from plant to plant. So large patches of one plant species are less important than dense patches with a diversity of flowering plants.

At the Haven we have examples of both planting styles.



Getting back to the questions posed at the beginning of the post: rather than worrying that you might not have a large enough garden or be able to provide the right mix of plants, just do it! Choose plants that will provide flowers for as much of the year as possible, with as much of the garden as you can planted with flowers. In the Davis area, bees are active year round so the Haven always has something in bloom.   If the garden does include turf areas, which don't provide bee forage or habitat, try to plant your flowers so that they are in a continuous patch.

Read The Bee Gardener Blog:

Take the Pledge: Honey Bees Need Your Help

Honey Bee Haven Take the Pledge

Bees are responsible for pollinating one in three bites of food we eat...and they're in trouble. Since the mid-1990s, they've been dying off in droves around the world. Colonies have been mysteriously collapsing with adult bees disappearing, seemingly abandoning their hives.

This phenomenon — known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD — is likely caused by a variety of interacting factors, including pathogens, loss of habitat and increased exposure to systemic and other pesticides.

Policymakers have yet to make pollinator health a top priority, and current regulations don't provide adequate protection for bees. But a groundswell of concerned citizens, gardeners and beekeepers is building to protect bees.

Join the movement! Take the pledge to provide a honey bee haven with access to pesticide-free food, shelter and water. It doesn't take much space — a few containers of the right kinds of plants tucked into your garden, on a balcony or front stoop, will get you started.

Guiding Principles:

  1. Protect bees from pesticides. Pesticides kill beneficial insects including pollinators and natural enemies that control common pests like aphids. Certain pesticides, including neonicotinoids, are highly toxic to honey bees in particular. Instead of using pesticides, explore organic ways to grow healthy plants, such as using compost for healthy soil and controlling pests with homemade remedies and biocontrols like ladybugs.
  2. Provide a variety of food for bees. Consider clustered plantings with staggered blooming times so there is food throughout the year and particularly in the late summer and fall. Native plants are always best, and inter-planting and hedgerows provide additional forage on farms.
  3. Provide a year-round, clean source of water for bees. This can be a river, pond, irrigation system, rainwater collection system or small-scale garden water features. Shallow water sources can provide more than enough water for bees, without creating opportunities for mosquitoes to breed.
  4. Provide shelter for bees. Leave some ground undisturbed and untilled and some dead trees and plants on the property for wild bees to nest in.

We Rely on Bees, and They're Relying on Us

Pesticide Action Network   6/17/13

It's pollinator week and bees need your help! They're continuing to die off in droves, facing habitat loss, pathogens — and widespread exposure to pesticides that impair their brain function or severely weaken their immune systems.

Yet policymakers still aren't acting quickly to protect them.

But home gardeners and backyard beekeepers all over the country are stepping up to create pesticide-free spaces for bees. If you haven't already, will you join them?

Bees need safe havens» Take the pledge to protect bees in your backyard, and put your bee haven on the map! It’s easy to do, and will demonstrate the groundswell of citizen support to protect pollinators from pesticides. You'll also find other ways you can help — from pressuring policymakers to organizing in your community — featured on our Honey Bee Haven website.

You don’t need to be a beekeeper or avid gardener to create a safe haven — tucking a few containers of bee-friendly plants on a balcony or front stoop will get you started. And if you already have a bee haven, put it on the map!

Bees need access to pesticide-free food, water and shelter — and every bit of habitat makes a difference.

Protect honey bees» We can thank bees for one in three bites of food we eat, including many of our favorites like almonds, apples and raspberries. And their pollination services contribute $19 billion to our agricultural economy. We rely on bees everyday — and they're relying on us. Create a safe, pesticide-free haven and put it on the map! 

With thanks for all you do on behalf of these vital pollinators.