The Curious Beekeeper

Bees on Blue and Blue on Bees

- January 1, 2023 - Rusty Burlew - (excerpt)

Blue surrounds us from the depths of the oceans to the farthest reaches of the sky. Shades of blue shift and pulsate as clouds meander, sea floors fluctuate, and atmospheric particulates toy with the light. We’ve coined alluring words for these gradations of blue: sapphire, azure, ultramarine, cyan, indigo, and cobalt. And could anything sound more romantic than “cerulean skies”?

Despite the volume of diverse and evolving blues in our daily lives, a sweep of delicate blue flowers shimmering in the sunshine is nothing short of mystical. Why? Perhaps we don’t associate living things with blue, reserving it instead for those boundless expanses of seeming emptiness. Flowers of pink and white and yellow and red seem normal to us while blooms of blue are startling. Unexpected. Freaky.

Mesmerized by blue blooms, many gardeners dedicate entire planting beds to flowers of a particular hue. These folks plant swaths of catmint, bachelor’s buttons, scilla, and borage for their own delight. But no one is as pleased as the bees. Nothing, it seems, is more bee satisfying than a carpet of blue blossoms on a warm spring day. Bees on blue are happy indeed. 

Blue pollen

As enchanted as I am by blue flowers, my greatest delight is blue pollen. I’m obsessed with it, chasing blue-legged bees for hours in order to get a single photo. I have lain in the mud for extended mucky stretches, trying to capture a blue-burdened bee on a periwinkle flower against a blueberry sky. I have ordered every blue-pollen-producing plant I can find. Blue on bees is my own happy place.

Blue pollen and blue flowers don’t necessarily go together. Although blue flowers like scilla and baby blue eyes produce satisfying heaps of sapphire pollen, others like chicory and forget-me-nots do not.

Some non-blue flowers produce blue pollen. For example, the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, is purple, white, or red with bluish-gray pollen, a color similar to those seeds on your poppy-seed bun. For some reason I won’t speculate on, honey bees like to roll in this stuff, emerging from the central disk all quivery and covered in gametes. Another poppy, Papaver orientale, is red with a dark center and dark blue pollen.

Does the color matter?

Blue pollen seems like a gratuitous gesture on the part of mother nature. After all, it is the color of the flowers, the sweetness of the nectar, and the scent oozing from glands that attract bees. The color of the pollen shouldn’t much matter. And, as we all know, bees will collect it regardless of the color — white, green, yellow, pink, brown, and gray all work for them. So why did nature go to all that trouble? I haven’t a clue, but I’m transfixed.

My first encounter with blue pollen was not in a pollen basket or on a stigma. Instead, it was in a frame of pollen. The entire frame was heavy with pollen in shades of lemon, egg yolk, tangerine, and lime. But scattered among the familiar colors were hexagons of bright, ethereal blue. I was mesmerized. What was producing such an unexpected color? I’ve been on the hunt ever since.

A true blue native is a rare find

As with many extraordinary things, neither blue flowers nor blue pollen is common. When I page through local field guides filled with alluring photos of native plants, I see very few that are “really most sincerely” blue. Some are close, but oftentimes they lean toward purple or magenta.

Northern bluebells (Mertensia paniculata) are blue except when they are pink. Oyster leaf (Mertensia maritima), a type of bluebell, also has blue flowers except when they are white. Introduced creeping Charlie or ground ivy (Glecoma hederacea) is described as having blue or blue-purple flowers but they look pink to me.

Among the bluest is American brooklime (Veronica beccabunga). It’s a small flower that grows in wet ground and shallow marshes, always attended by tiny black bees of some sort. It’s similar to alpine speedwell (Veronica wormskjoldii) another blue-flowered, moisture-loving plant. Then we have blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia parviflora), blue penstemon (Penstemon serrulatus), and introduced chicory (Cichorium intybus).

The bluest wildflower I’ve seen here in the Pacific Northwest is common camas (Camassia quamash). In early spring, fields dense with camas lilies look like lakes when viewed from a distance. This optical illusion startled me more than once and is amazing to behold.

Blue natives with blue pollen

Baby blue eyes, Nemophilia menziesii, is a California native that the USDA-ARS selected as excellent bee forage. In the same genus as fivespot, it is often planted in bee pastures designed for native bee species. It blooms early, re-seeds easily, and will grow in most areas of the United States. The flower and the pollen are fragile blue and attract honey bees as well as wild pollinators.

Two other blue wildflowers with blue pollen are wild geranium and bird’s-eye gilia (Gilia tricolor). Wild geranium, also known as cranesbill, comes in various colors from blue to purplish pink. Several of the species have distinctly blue pollen.

Bird’s-eye gilia is a lovely, small tricolored annual that grows low to the ground. The flowers range in color from pale blue to near violet and the stamens produce clouds of tepid baby-blue pollen. These flowers attract more bees when you plant lots of them because they’re so tiny. But because they are loaded with both pollen and nectar, they draw the smaller native bees in great numbers. Some visitors are so small, you might not recognize them as bees, but you will definitely recognize the hummingbirds and butterflies in the mix.

Colors can be unpredictable

Oftentimes the descriptions in books seem at odds with the photos. I suppose the author, the light, the printing process, or some other variable affects the outcome, but I’d be hard-pressed to describe some of the images as any sort of blue.

The same goes for pollen. Up close, many pollens called blue seem more or less gray. However, here in the Pacific Northwest, we have one kind of  ….