Toyon at sunset
A lone toyon amidst an autumn sunset

I am continuously impressed with the seemingly endless wealth of knowledge beekeepers accumulate over the years. Whether that knowledge is passed down from generation to generation, a product of their own curiosity, or a combination of both; a successful beekeeper, more often than not, possesses a fundamental knowledge of the topography of the land on which they keep their bees. Topography and climate generally go hand in hand and studying the distinctive characteristics of both can help to determine the most ideal places to locate your bee yards. The location of bee yards strongly influences management strategies, techniques, and decisions. For this reason beekeepers are and forever will be tied to the earth in ways that ordinary people could never imagine.

As researchers, considerable emphasis is initially placed on learning the science behind beekeeping and not necessarily on the intricacies of what it is to be a beekeeper. What I am learning is that to understand one you have to understand the other. This helps to put the pieces together…

I was lucky enough to have some free time this summer to pursue two of my most immediate passions in life; exploration and fly-fishing, both of which, much like beekeeping, run concurrent with topography and climate. For example, although beautiful and overly populated with flowering plants, a beekeeper would likely not choose to keep honey bees in a place like the Mendocino coast because of the way the topography influences the climate. It’s often rainy, cool, and windy; all of which make Mendocino a less than ideal place for a commercial beekeeper to keep honey bees for any length of time. However, these conditions do create an environment very well suited for bumble bees who are stouter, hardier, and better equipped for cooler, wetter climates. Likewise, as an angler mostly interested in fishing for trout, I would choose a cool water fishery, fed by springs and ground water, like Baum Lake over a warm water fishery like Lake Oroville, a body of water known for holding some of the largest bass in the state of California. This is not to say that there aren’t places where honey and bumble bees (like trout and bass) can coexist, they are just rarer, more delicate, and harder to access.

Fish Smith
Me in the pursuit of happiness

I enjoy exploring and fishing for the same reasons I enjoy honey bees…The three fill me with a sense of wonder and curiosity that cannot truly be discovered unless you choose to submerge yourself in them. Sure you can watch a documentary that will take your mind to exotic places, or tune in to an instructional video on how to fly fish or keep bees but there is no substitute for living in the moment by experiencing them first-hand. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to chase my passions through the vastness of Northern California in the company of such respectable people.

Flumes in Paradise
The perfect place to let your mind run free

On a recent hike through the canyon that lines the West Branch of the Feather River off Dean Road in Paradise, CA, I picked up on something I had noticed earlier this year. I had heard some beekeepers talking about a native flowering shrub the bees yearn for (there’s a lot of room to think on that flume trail and the views are inspiring). Most beekeepers here in California refer to it by the common name toyon but I have heard beekeepers in Hawaii call it Christmas berry (a.k.a. California Holly or Hollywood). I didn’t put the two together until recently when I saw the fruit hanging from its branches that toyon and Christmas berry were the same plant and much easier to identify in the fall and winter because of its bright red berries. I did some research on toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) mostly because I was interested in its distribution (especially as it pertains to elevation) and ended up learning some cool stuff.

A cluster of Christmas berries hangs from a sprig of toyon.

For instance, toyon occurs in chaparral, oak woodland, and mixed-evergreen forests at an elevation of less than 1300 meters {1}. Being from Pennsylvania I had no idea what a chaparral forest was, so I looked that up next. I learned that chaparral forests are shaped by a Mediterranean climate, wildfire, and characterized by drought adapted scrub plants {2}. That makes a lot of sense after living out here for a year and experiencing the extremely dry summers and mild, but wet winters. Since toyon is native to California I wanted to know who were the other animals utilizing this plant?

Toyon next to flume
Christmas berries hang from a canyon wall

It wasn’t surprising to find out that butterflies, birds, bears, deer, raccoons and coyotes also take advantage of the flowers and fruit {3}. On a side note I discovered that one of my favorite birds is often found in flocks feeding on toyon berries during their winter stays in California. The cedar waxwing specializes in eating fruit and can survive solely on it for several months {4}. Why is this one of my favorite birds you might be wondering? I am glad you asked… Cedar waxwings live year round in Pennsylvania and love to snack on aquatic insects. Where do you find aquatic insects? In the same places you find trout! There have been more than a handful of times where I have been on a trout stream and have seen these birds gather and wait. What were they waiting for I wondered? The same thing I was waiting for…The emergence of aquatic insects! It seems that the emergence of aquatic insects from a stream not only trigger a feeding frenzy for trout but also for birds who love to eat insects as well. Chances are if there are cedar waxwings working a stream there are also hungry trout doing the same.

An even more interesting piece of information was the fact that cedar waxwings are highly social birds working together to secure limited food resources. When fruit is scarce and only one bird at a time is able to reach a single cluster, the other birds in the flock will line up along a branch and pass berries to one another using their beaks to ensure each bird gets a chance to eat {5}. (Sounds like another creature in the animal kingdom I am partial too, honey bees!)

What was a bit surprising was that the berries are ok for humans to eat (normally, humans are taught to avoid things in nature that are brightly colored). Native Americans would make jam out of the berries and use the leaves to make tea as a stomach remedy {6}. I did read that the berries, if eaten before they are fully ripe (to be sure they are ripe wait until December when the berries have reached a deep orange or reddish color), will defend themselves by emitting a toxic cyanide gas. However, once the berries are ripe, the cyanide retracts back into its trunk rendering the fruit harmless for human consumption. The berries can be eaten raw but it sounds like they are tastier after being roasted {7}.

Another interesting fact that I came across was that one of the most famous places on the planet may have been indirectly named after toyon. Apparently, the hills outside the city of Los Angeles are lined with toyon and its red berries reminded early English settlers of their native holly berries influencing them to name their community Hollywood. In the past sprigs of toyon were used commercially as Christmas decorations in place of the English holly. In an ironic twist of fate, over-harvesting of toyon led to a California state law that now prohibits anyone from collecting the branches of wild toyon {8}.

A flume that runs along the trail winding through the Feather River Canyon

I never would have guessed I’d run across so many fascinating facts when I started my research but whether you are a beekeeper, an English settler, an explorer, a fisherman, a bird, a bee or a beast, what lies just around the corner or at the edge of a canyon wall can bring unexpected joy, peace, and good fortune as long as you are open to what good things may come if you choose to take the time to listen and learn. Listening and learning facilitates understanding and understanding how and why things happen is a large part of science and life in general. I will strive to talk less and listen more…

For more information please visit the following:






{6}USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center




Be Involved. Be Included.Bee Informed.