Monday, February 1, 2010

Buckeyes vs. Bees

So it all started last Spring when I saw the buckeyes in bloom and I.  Had.  To.  Have.  One.  So I planted one right after Christmas and it's already playing peek-a-boo with it's leaves.  Then my brother gave me an awesome book about Backyard Beekeeping from this great little shop in Sacramento.  Cool!  Then, I remembered that Aesculus californica pollen and nectar is poisonous to European honeybees.  But, I asked, how poisonous?  Does the bee realize it's bad and avoid it or does he naively sip away to his own doom?   Oh, what's a urban farmer/native gardener to do when she wants it all?  Well, here's what I turned up in terms of internet research:

This article by CNPS doesn't discuss the Aesculus/bee relationship extensively, but it does provide a fun, short read about the relationship between insects and native plants.

This page talks about the symptoms of honeybees that can't help themselves and partake of the pollen/nectar.  There aren't disturbing pictures, but I did feel very bad for the bees after reading it.  Sensitive folks take note before clicking on the link.

And finally, Bingo!  A page that concisely answers my question.  Buckeyes greatly benefit the native insect world, but if you have many other blooming plants for the European bees, they'll choose healthier options.

Of course, since this is the internets, I take this advice with a grain of salt.  It is a start, however.  It would be great to hear Gordon Frankie's opinion.  He runs the Urban Bee Research project and I keep meaning to take one of his classes.  Can anyone else weigh in on this subject?


  1. Fascinating! I'd never heard that Aesculus pollen was toxic to European Honey Bees. Afraid I can't offer much info. Maybe you could email Eric Mussen, the extension apiculturist at UC Davis? He writes their bee newsletter.

    I'm taking a Mason Bee class this weekend, I'll ask the instructor of the course for his/her opinion too. I'll let you know if I learn anything of interest.

  2. I had never heard about a plant being poisonous to bees before. Turning black, shiny and losing your hair does not sound like fun before you die. Is this plant a hybrid that was developed? If not, and it appears in nature naturally, and not too many bees visit, then maybe it is okay?

  3. Oh crap, Clare- what does a Mason Bee class entail? That sounds so cool! Thanks for a new path for extensive internet research!
    Noelle- I know, it doesn't sound fun at all. Native bees aren't bothered, though. It's kind of like being raised on tuna noodle casserole and trying spicy Thai food for the first time. Not that I've lost my hair, but it can be intense! I think the key words are diversity and variety- as long as you have options, they'll choose what's good for them. I think Asclepias was part of the icky list, too.

  4. I'm not entirely sure what a Mason Bee class entails, beyond their value as orchard pollinators, and their requirements in so far as enticing them to stick around. I don't know much about them yet, beyond the fact they are an endemic bee species, and bee-for-bee, apparently more efficient pollinators than the European honey bee. If I learn anything really valuable this weekend, maybe I'll post a quick blob on the blog next week.

    I just read an article a couple of weeks ago about diversity in planting. Toxic Buckeye pollen reinforces that need. The study I read (from France if memory serves) suggested that bees with access to a broader diversity of pollen types had more robust immune systems, and were thought to be less susceptible to colony collapse. Not that I need an excuse to plant more flowers...but that sounds like a good reason to me!

  5. I hadn't heard of this and don't have much to offer yet, but my cousin did research with Gordon Frankie at Berkeley. Though they mostly seem to focus on native bees. I just sent her a message to see if she knows more. If I find anything out I'll let you know.

  6. Clare, the diversity makes sense. It reminds me of the diversity needed for habitat planting- food for larvae, butterflies, birds, hummingbirds, etc. I guess if you're already doing that, the bees might be taken care of by themselves. In your case, that probably means cover crops of wildflowers under the fruit trees. If you haven't checked out the Pollinator Conservation Handbook, I highly recommend. They discuss using native bees in commercial applications.

  7. Hi Brad! Ask and you shall receive, huh? Thank you!