by Elizabeth Newton
One of my favorite things to do in the summertime is to sit in my garden and watch the honeybees swarm all over the borage plants. Borage, or borago officinalis, is a favorite food of honeybees. It grows like a weed, re-seeding itself year after year, requiring no care. As a bonus, the plentiful blue star-shaped blossoms are edible and look pretty in salads.
All summer long, honeybees are hard at work collecting and storing nectar and pollen for the coming winter. On a hot July day, it’s hard to comprehend that days are actually growing shorter, but the bees know. Though their numbers burgeon in springtime, they begin to decline in summer, slowly at first. In late fall, a small remnant of the colony hunkers down for the winter. They seal themselves inside the hive, using a sticky substance called propolis. All winter long, this small knot of bees keeps each other warm and lives on their stored supplies.
Soon after the winter solstice, the lengthening days signal to the queen that springtime is on the horizon. She begins to lay eggs in preparation for the cycle of life to start anew. Springtime is the beekeeper’s busy season. As the numbers of bees increase, they outgrow their home and start preparing to swarm. When a critical mass is achieved, half the colony flies off in search of a new home, often gathering in treetops. Skilled beekeepers coax them into bee boxes to start new colonies.
Borage is not the only common garden plant that is beneficial to pollinators. Any vegetable gardener familiar with the sight of bees tumbling around inside the flowers of tomatoes and squash knows that a good crop depends on these foragers. Sunflowers, zinnias and other flowers do more than bring beauty to the garden — they also provide crucial nectar and pollen for bees. Many plants native to California, such as coyote bush, ceanothus, salvias and California poppies, provide dependable food supplies that benefit not only the European honeybee, but also many other species as well. In our dry summers, nectar dearth can threaten a honeybee colony’s food supplies. Planting pollinator-friendly plants that bloom at different times of the year ensures a continuous source of nectar and pollen for many insects, and by extension, the birds, reptiles, amphibians and other animals who feed on them.
Starting as early as February, bees start to forage during warm, dry days. Wild mustard and flowering quince kick off the season. Fruit trees and ceanothus soon follow. By mid-April, when apple orchards are in full bloom, the air is filled with bee highways. And as summer unfolds, the air in the garden hums with activity.
During the warm months, my husband and I open our hives periodically to check on the bees and harvest a little honey if there is surplus. The honey may range from very pale to deep bronze and, sometimes, several types can be found within one hive. A dazzling array of pollen can also be seen, with many hues of whites, yellows, browns and oranges. As with wine, honey is a reflection and a record of the plants and the conditions of the land that supports them. And, like wine, the flavors are complex and unique to each harvest. Honey can taste like anything from citrus to marshmallows to pine. We take a small amount of honey for ourselves, leaving enough for the bees to get through the winter. In it, we taste the flowers from fields, gardens and trees.
Watch: The beehive in springtime
Elizabeth Newton is Sonoma Land Trust’s Office Manager. She lives in Sebastopol with her husband on a small hobby farm and tracks in as much soil into the office as the stewardship team.
Sonoma Land Trust is a local nonprofit based in Santa Rosa, CA, that conserves scenic, natural, agricultural and open lands in Sonoma County for the benefit of the community and future generations. This blog focuses on SLT's stewardship team, whose members do hands-on work to directly protect, restore, and safeguard the land for generations to come.