Ode to the Bee, Blue and Otherwise
Bees were, in a sense, my entry point into becoming a part of Blue Bee Cider. During my master’s program, I observed both traditional and modern forms of beekeeping across different cultures, including visiting apiaries in Calabria, Italy and Texel Island, Holland and attending courses taught by beekeepers from Venice, Italy and Bulgaria. In these circles of whole food and slow living, the bee is lauded, regal even. Happily, bees are understood in our culture for their essential importance to pollinate the majority of our foodstuffs. Documentaries like “Queen of the Sun” and “More Than Honey” are gaining ground and helping to bring the bee further into the American public eye.
The connection between bees and beverage goes back quite some time and, according to Kenneth F. Kiple, may even be the origin source of modern beekeeping. In his book, A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization, Kiple writes, “A taste for alcohol was doubtless also a reason for honeybee domestication. These natives of the Mediterranean region and the Middle East were making honey for millions of years before human hunter-gatherers were around to steal it from them. […] Mead, which can be as simple as fermented honey and water, was almost assuredly humankind’s first alcoholic beverage.”
However, all of these experiences and discussions have been focused around the honey bee and honey production. It wasn’t until I arrived at Blue Bee Cider that I started giving more thought to that other purpose of bees – pollination – and learning about those species that, while not producing honey as an edible food source, are just as important.
The Bee & the Apple Tree
Blue Bee Cider was named after the Orchard Mason or Blue Orchard Bee, known in scientific circles as Osmia lignaria. (Check out some photos here.) This solitary, wild bee is native to North America (one of 4000 native species, in fact) and is crucial for pollinating early blooming fruit trees throughout the U.S. and Canada. Though originating in the Pacific Northwest, the blue orchard mason bee can be found across the continent and its eastern subspecies (Osmia lignaria lignaria Say) is particularly important for helping our Virginia apple trees thrive.
While honeybees have some part in supporting pollination of fruit trees, the blue bee has been found to be up to 70% more effective, which has led to it becoming the most managed solitary bee. (Learn more about managing blue bees here.) This efficiency is due to the way that blue orchard bees collect pollen – it sticks to the hairs on the underside of their bellies and is more easily transferred to flowers’ stamen in its dry form than the sticky nectar and pollen balls created by honeybees. Blue bees also show a natural preference for foraging among mid-sized fruit trees, making them the perfect choice for pollinating orchards.
Much research is being done, particularly in light of the widespread impacts of colony collapse, into how native pollinators like the blue bee can help supplement the work of honeybees and take some of the stress off at-risk species. Each female blue bee is a queen that looks after her own small brood rather than hiving in a community structure like honeybees with a queen and worker bees. This solitary characteristic, and the blue bees’ nature to build nests in small holes in wood, reeds, straw, or similar material, means they are not subject to colony collapse like their hive-minded relatives.
Once they’ve found the appropriate location for their nest, the female blue bee will take sticky nectar, mix it with pollen, and lay her egg on top of this concoction at the back of the hole or tube. She then collects mud and uses it to create a partition, repeating the process until she reaches the front opening, thus having formed a series of cells. In early spring, males emerge first and wait for the females in order to mate, an occurrence that usually takes place around the time of blooming for redbuds, one of the blue bees’ favorites to pollinate and a crucial tree for attracting and keeping blue bees in a particular area.
In On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, food chemistry expert Harold McGee reports that, “It appears from the fossil record that bees have been around for some 50 million years, their social organization for half that time.” With some luck, cultivation, and education, they’ll be around for much longer.
Watercolor by Val Littlewood of http://pencilandleaf.blogspot.com
USDA Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/mason_bees.shtml
University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences “Featured Creatures”: http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/MISC/BEES/blue_orchard_bee.htm
Virginia State University Department of Agriculture: http://www.agriculture.vsu.edu/files/docs/native-bees-as-alternative-pollinators