Escalating concerns about the health of U.S. honeybees has put new focus on their diet, particularly their foraging for protein-rich pollen and nectar, a primary source of food energy.
Beekeepers have historically fed their livestock, as bees are classified, by hauling them to the Midwest and the South when not actively engaged in commercial pollination. These regions' clover and alfalfa attract beekeepers, who take hives there in spring and summer so their bees can roam free.
But recent weather patterns and agricultural trends have endangered natural forage. Last year's drought in the Midwest greatly reduced the availability of bee-friendly plants. Also, acreage devoted to corn and soybeans has displaced alfalfa, clover and wildflowers.
Researchers and at least one large grower have responded by experimenting with different, and sometimes exotic, plants that work well as bee forage. Planted in and around Kern County, these are intended to supplement -- not replace -- almond blooms, which provide high-quality bee nutrition.
There is a balance to be maintained, however. Any plant distracting honeybees from almond trees during pollination is considered counterproductive. Also, forage that doesn't flower when almond trees bloom during February and March does honeybees little good if they depart the Central Valley following the nut pollination.
One of Kern County's leading proponents of forage experimentation is Paramount Farming Co. Working with researchers from the University of California, Davis, Paramount bee biologist Gordon Wardell oversees a series of tent-like structures set aside for nontraditional bee forage.
Inside one of the structures about 20 miles west of Lost Hills are rows of Lacy Phacelia, Chinese Houses (Collensia), Five Spot and California Blue Bells.Wardell said the plants were selected based primarily on the quality of their pollen, as well as when they bloom.
A theory he hopes to test is that the added pollen diversity presented by the experimental forage increases bees' work intensity without detracting from their almond pollination work.
But on a larger level, he wants to raise awareness of the need for more forage everywhere.
"If you want to help bees," he said, "plant a flower."