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Saturday, April 1, 2017

Pollen...By the Basketful...

Despite the calendar's proclamation, spring has yet to arrive here in the Valley. At last the pussy-willow is blooming out--almost a month behind schedule. Last year at this time leaf buds were greening on the bush by the compost heap out back. Now the catkins are flush with golden pollen and the bush a frenzy of bees looting their golden plunder. The gold rush is on and the bees are desperate to stake their claims.Weather permitting, of course. The late winter pollen has come and gone: alder, hazelnut, crocus... all sluiced away by rain. The spring pollen supply is essential to spring buildup, the protein boost needed to ratchet up egg laying and brood rearing. And now the bees are playing catch-up.

Just what to call our pussy-willow these days? The spouted twig I planted a half dozen years ago is now twenty feet tall, thus it seems an insult to call the willow a "bush." What height must a plant reach before it qualifies as a bona fide "tree" escapes me. A pussy-willow tree? Surely we have one now.

Pollen. "Bee bread" I've heard it called, the bees' protein source. Mixed with sucrose, whether it be nectar or sugar refined from cane or beets, it becomes the essential pap for larval sustenance, crucial nourishment for young bees destined to become the work force that will gather the summer's nectar for the season's honey crop.

Pollen collection is solely the jurisdiction of the worker bee whose hind leg is especially designed for the task. The concave configuration of the third leg, the corbicula, which is surrounded by a bulwark of stiff hairs, serves as a basket for pollen loads. Fore and middle legs "rake" the pollen to the hind leg where the sticky substance is formed into a pollen pill.
When its two "baskets" are flush with pollen, the laden worker beelines it to the hive where its two-pack payload is tamped into cells for future use.

I had hoped to trap some pussy willow pollen this spring as there is a demand for local pollen; some allergy sufferers believe pollen is nature's panacea for spring allergies. A delicate shade of pale gold, pussy-willow pollen is pleasing to the eye, especially when packaged in glass containers. The bees are relieved of the fruit of their labors by means of a pollen trap, an especially designed device that forces the pollen-laden workers to enter the hive through a small gauge mesh.

As they crawl through the wire one leg at a time, the pollen pill is dislodged from the "basket" and tumbles into a muslin-lined collection tray where it is harvested by the beekeeper. It is always with a slight sense of guilt that I deprive my bees of their beebread and butter and am careful not to be too greedy. Two, three consecutive days at the most I restrict the pollen flow and then allow the pollen bearers full access to the hive. This season's weather embargo on pollen foraging has sidelined my pollen collecting. Perhaps in a month or so from the maple and dandelion, but by no means now.

This pollen trail has led me astray of the post's original intent. The Ripple wonders if anyone in the blogosphere would consider it possible to compute the total annual pollen yield of a twenty/thirty foot tall pussy-willow tree. Yield in pounds would be preferable, but if the metric system is your measurement of choice, I''ll settle for an estimate in kilos.

For the beekeeper who wishes a bounty of pollen for his bees' spring buildup, I suggest he plant a pussy-willow or two in his landscape. Pussy-willow is easily rooted: half a dozen twigs in a water-filled quart jar or a pot of wet sand will do the trick. When planting the rooted twigs in their permanent location, exercise a bit of caution: willows are vigorous plants and will easily take over a garden spot if not kept well pruned. Please note, too: willow root systems are "divining" roots; they seek out water, so don't plant a willow near a septic drain field as the system most certainly will become root bound.

I would recommend using willows only in horticultural pursuits...not advisable to put a pussy-willow to use in the manner Imogene Herdman suggests in the delightful Christmas story The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The fractious little urchin bullies the prim and proper Alice Wendlekin ("I am always Mary"), whose role Imogene covets, with the scare tactic: "And next spring when the pussy-willows come out, I'm going to stick a pussy-willow so far down your ear where nobody can reach it. And it'll sit there and grow and grow and grow, so for the rest of your life there'll be a pussy-willow bush growing out of your ear."

Bad enough to have to prune and trim one's ear. And to endure all that humming and buzzing every spring. But for pollen-starved bees, what an unexpected windfall.

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