Alders Valued as Early NorCal Pollen Source

As January comes to a close and much of the country is still buried in snow, signs of spring are beginning to show here in Northern California. After receiving above-average rainfall this winter, the land feels as if it’s ready to burst with life after years of severe drought. Farmers and beekeepers already have high expectations for the year as reservoirs  fill and the land soaks up rainfall. 

Forage for bees in most of California has been been very scarce in recent years and beekeepers have relied on near year-round protein feeding. This is especially crucial in preparation for taking the bees into the almond orchards in February, when large colonies are desired for pollination.

In addition to feeding protein patties, very early pollen sources can really help jumpstart colonies before the almond bloom and queen breeding season. This year in particular I noticed the bees bringing in large amounts of alder tree pollen in the foothills and parts of the Sacramento valley. A few beekeepers have mentioned that in most years red alder is the first major pollen source of the region, including the Pacific Northwest. Having this natural pollen for the bees to mix with the supplemental feed can stimulate consumption of the patties and help early build-up. This probably due to the fact that the bees need to combine protein sources so all essential amino acids are present in sufficient amounts.

Alter trees seem to prefer “wet feet” and can often be found along bodies of water. In January in Northern California they can easily be seen along the banks of creeks and rivers in the foothills, with the bright yellow catkins standing out starkly against the brown leafless trees. Being a wind pollinated tree, the pollen is produced in copious amounts and the grains can even be seen dusting the ground under the tree.

Because alders do not rely on bees for pollination, they have no need to produce nectar to lure them in. However, their value as the first pollen of the year more than makes up for this shortcoming. This spring keep an eye out for this useful and beautiful tree. Happy beekeeping!

Written By: Ben Sallmann

Ben Sallmann has written 7 post in this blog.

As part of the Northern California Tech Transfer Team, I work closely with beekeepers and breeders in the region and assist with inspection, sampling for Varroa and Nosema, and testing for hygienic behavior. My interest in bees began as a child working on our family’s apiary/organic vegetable farm in Wisconsin, and I joined BIP in the summer of 2013 in order to be more involved with hands on research that benefits beekeepers in a tangible way, and am currently based out of the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Butte County, CA.

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  • Patrick Pynes

    That is an interesting short essay about an important source of early spring pollen for the honeybees, from a native tree. It is good to hear that the rains have returned and continued in California this wintertime. We were in the Tomales Bay area for the “Bee Audacious Conference” in December and there were good rains and clouds: it was already turning into a wet year.
    It has been similar here in Northern Arizona: we are having good rains and snows, even better than last year, so far. However, we have not had the severe, prolonged drought that California has experienced during the past few years….(“knock on wood”).
    I was shocked to read that California beekeepers have been forced to feed the bees supplemental pollen sources during the drought. As an organic practices beekeeper, I have never done that, although I have occasionally fed sugar syrup (from 100 percent cane sugar) to weak colonies in Autumn. If beekeepers are having to feed their bees protein or carbohydrates, instead of allowing the bees to “live off the land” as florivores, then something is wrong with our relationship to the land. The severe droughts that both Texas and California have experienced during the past few years (since 2010) are an expression of our human disconnection and severely imbalanced relationship to the land (as Leopold defined the land).
    Here in Northern Arizona, the most important early pollen source for honeybees is the Siberian elm tree, a “trashy” invasive species that was introduced into the Southwest in the 1930s. The honeybees also gather much pollen from early blooming cottonwood trees in our remaining riparian zones. Our cottonwoods are your alders.
    Thanks again for your interesting article.
    Sincerely,
    Patrick Pynes, Ph.D.
    President, Northern Arizona Beekeepers Association

    • Mark Roalson

      Here in Northeastern Minnesota, an early wild pollen source is from the wild salix, which are commonly known as pussy-willows. They along with hazel brush are the earliest pollen sources, right before the old standby, dandelion.

      • Patrick Pynes

        Thanks. Very cool. Here in northern Arizona–also a “border” state–an important local Salix species is commonly known as “coyote willow.” It is one of the first indigenous plants to flower in late winter/early spring, and provides both pollen and nectar to the honeybees, as one of our pollen analyses from Texas A&M confirmed. As for the dandelion, long live ’em, y las abejas, tambien. They are “foreign exotic invasives,” just like the honeybees themselves and just like most (but not all) of the humans living here on Turtle Island. I am pleased that our ancestors brought both of these species across the Atlantic Ocean. They need each other, just as they need the best parts of us.

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