Beekeepers often talk about 'nectar flow' - but what is that, really?
Nectar flow is the time of year when the native vegetation is in bloom. Sometimes that's hard to pinpoint, especially because many of us have no idea what the native vegetation really is. In California it's even more difficult because different native vegetations bloom at different times. For instance, some native wildflowers bloom in late Winter or early Spring - things like lupine, clarkia, and poppies, and early Spring is a typical time for nectar flow all around the US. But here, manzanitas and ceanothus often bloom much earlier, providing pollinators with a nectar source when we have mild, sunny days in January and February. Then there's the milkweed flowering in June, the tarweed flowering when nothing else is in the hot days of July and August. What native vegetation can you find flowering in your area? It's fun to figure that out. Sometimes there's not much happening in the native world.
Luckily, there's also an awful lot of non-native vegetation flowering that can also prompt a nectar flow. When lavender flowers all over my neighborhood, the bees go crazy - likewise with sunflowers and dahlias. Bottle brush. Mimosa trees. Crepe Myrtles. Guara. All the non-native things that people have flowering in their yards helps. I'm so grateful for all the suburban flowers.
My next-door neighbors have a Chinese Tallow tree. The smell of this tree blooming marks the beginning of summer for me. It's not a lovely smell, but it's deep and rich and pervasive - we smell it constantly. I love it but I could see why someone else wouldn't. But the really fabulous thing about this tree is that it provides my bees with a tremendous nectar flow. That's one of my bees, above (I'm just assuming it's one of my bees, I don't really know), foraging in one of the long blossoms. And here's a short video (one minute long) of the bees in this tree. It gets really good and buzzy about halfway through.
I've noticed some interesting things about this tree. For one, native bees seem to stay away - this tree attracts only honeybees, as far as I can tell. Secondly, seedlings of this tree are very persistent, coming up from the roots as well as from dropped seeds. Since my neighbor's tree is in their lawn, it gets mowed enough that the seedlings don't take over, but I can see that it could be a real problem.
So I did some research on this tree. In its native China, the waxy coating of the seeds is used for candle-making. No one seems to know exactly how it got here, though Benjamin Franklin is often blamed for planting it first. And I say 'blamed' because, in the South, from North Carolina down to Florida and over to Louisiana and Texas, this tree is a noxious invasive. The way folks write about this tree, you'd think it was the devil incarnate. It must be huge issue because the government has even worked hard to eradicate this tree.
In Texas, the local beekeepers have decided to make lemonade out of lemons and move their hives into Tallow stands in order to make plenty of honey. The trees have become important for this reason and beekeepers are actually worried about these trees being removed so rapidly.
After watching the seedlings of my neighbor's tree, I can see how this tree can be invasive. But it seems to be kept in check here in Northern California, either by drought or by human intervention. So I'm free to enjoy the tree and watch my bees enjoy it. There's little enough blooming at any one time to look this gift-horse in the mouth.
This is one of the reasons I try so hard to have flowers blooming in my yard year-round. Because California is a summer-dry area (and Fall-dry, and often Spring-dry), and on top of that we're in an historic drought which doesn't seem to be abating any time soon, for bees to survive we've got to help them. This is true of all pollinators, not just honeybees. Suburban areas, and even urban areas, are much better at this than rural, actually. The rural areas consist of often thousands of acres of monocrop (though hopefully that is changing, albeit slowly) where pollinators can find nothing to eat, whereas suburban areas are often broken up by plantings, whether native or not. There is actually more for bees to eat in neighborhoods.
So I encourage you to plant for the pollinators! Save a place in your garden where you can sow seeds, or plant things like salivas that bloom constantly through the summer. And remember to buy non-GMO seeds or plantings, and ask your local nursery if they are neonicotinoid free. If we're planting things that have been treated with systemic pesticides, we're doing more harm than good - and you may as well not plant anything at all.