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Pollinators are stretching their wings – and they’re hungry

Spring has technically sprung – back on March 20. And here in Southwest Colorado, I’m never fully sure of what that entails.

Do we get treated with some warm, windless days (ones that I can treat everyone with my stark-white winter legs as I put on shorts for the first time of the year?). Of course we do, and those are the days where everyone seems to find a bit of happiness tending to forgotten chores in the yard. Or flock to the deserts of southeastern Utah. And yes, our spring days are also peppered with snow, rain, dust-filled winds and all sorts of mud.

But on one of those all-too-rare sunny days, keep your eyes – and ears – open for one of the world’s most crucial creatures: bees. Many of them are starting to wake from their winter slumber, however that may look. Honeybees stay “active” over the winter in the hive, clustering together and flexing their flight muscles to generate enough heat that the outer edge of the hive stays above about 42 degrees.

Bumblebees enter what is called diapause, which is an advantageous state where they go somewhat dormant and no longer feed or reproduce. And our solitary bees (mason and carpenter bees are a couple of common examples) go into full hibernation. They tend to drill almost perfectly round holes, or cells, in wood, where they either overwinter (carpenter bees) or deposit their eggs (mason bees) and emerge in the spring.

Describing the life cycle of bees in one paragraph is overly simplistic, but I have only 500 or so words, so I need to be somewhat succinct. But regardless of my vagueness (and perhaps even errors), all these bees are critical pollinators. And as they start to stumble out of their hives, holes and nests over these next couple of weeks, starving, they are looking for food sources.

Colorado State University is blessed to have internationally recognized entomologist Whitney Cranshaw as a professor emeritus. He knows all things insect-related and loves to teach people about them. Years ago, as he was talking to my annual Master Gardener class, he got on the subject of what bees tend to feed on during those first couple of weeks after they emerge. And it was fascinating.

Researcher faculty members and their students were able to track the types of pollen that bees fed off of, and the vast majority was either associated with spring-flowering fruit trees or dandelions. Imagine shaking off the winter sleep, stretching your wings, hungry as all get-out, and finding a flowering apricot tree right now. It’s like those days when you creakily awaken from the “tent” that is the back of your truck only to find your spouse cooking bacon and eggs, and already has that glorious coffee ready to go (thanks Beth!).

What I am (not so succinctly) trying to get out is how critical spring flowers are for our pollinators. Not only will they help pollinate your fruit trees, giving you loads of pears, apples and plums in summer and fall, they are critical in our ecosystem.

Avoid the immediate reaction that you need to pull those dandelions. Perhaps there are some that are in spaces you don’t want them. But in my lawn? Sure, go to town. Unless the lawn is stressed, they probably aren’t going to take over. Plant spring-flowering trees and shrubs (apples, cherries, crab apples, redbud, hawthorns and tree lilacs) as well as perennials (winecups, wallflower, sulphur flower and many more).

Darrin Parmenter is the director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach him at darrin.parmenter@co.laplata.co.us or 382-6464.