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Pussy willows — harbinger of spring and best friend of bees

By Sue Chan

I’m sitting at my study window looking over a snow-laden landscape with more snow coming down. It’s February, and it’s a long time until bee season. Still, I’m thinking about bees, about their critical role as pollinators in our food system and in the food systems of many Ontario wild birds and mammals. I’m thinking about all the small berries and fruit in the wild landscape: wild raspberries, strawberries, thimbleberries, blackberries, blueberries, bearberries, winterberries, elderberries, mountain ash berries, Canada plum, wild apples, hawthorn — all are produced by plants in response to pollination. We get that, and that’s why we like bees. But what about food for bees?

Let’s clear up something right now, before I go on. I’m not talking about honey bees here. Honey bees are not native to Ontario, and they really are agricultural animals in this province. That means they have humans that care for them explicitly in exchange for the surplus of honey, pollen, beeswax and pollination services they provide, especially in the agricultural context. Honey bees are not bad, but as I said, I’m not talking about honey bees.  I’m talking about the 400-plus species of wild bees that are native to Ontario. These bees don’t make honey, most don’t live in colonies (except for the bumblebees), they don’t swarm, and generally, they avoid stinging.

Many (but certainly not all) native bees emerge from their snug nests in the ground or in hollow stems early in the spring (March or April, depending on the year), a time when few plants in our Ontario landscape have begun to produce the flowers that provide the nectar and pollen critical to bees’ survival.  These bees include bumblebees, and nine genera of solitary bees (Osmia, Anthophora, Colletes, Lasioglossum, Halictus, Augochlorella, Agapostemon, Andrena, and Ceratina) — about 225 species in all. These bee species are dependent upon ephemeral spring flowers in forests, early blooming non-native bulbs in gardens (like scilla and crocus), invasive coltsfoot often found on road edges, wind-pollinated deciduous trees such as red, silver and sugar maples — and the pussy willow. The earliest blooming of these are the pussy willows, which produce their soft fuzzy grey flowers at the first sign of warmth. I have two large pussy willows in my garden, and one of them began to bloom in the warm spell that we had in January of 2018 (not so great for the plant and not very useful to bees!).

Pussy willows (Salix discolor) are interesting shrubs for a few reasons. First, they are very adaptable to all kinds of soil and moisture conditions. I have one in a place where its feet are wet most of the year and another in a place where the soil is dry and gravelly. Both thrive and produce flowers that are covered with foraging native bees in the spring. Second, they are dioecious, meaning there are male pussy willow plants and female pussy willow plants. The flowers (also called catkins) of the male plants are different from those of the female plants (see photo) because the male flowers produce pollen whereas the female flowers do not. Both male and female catkins are covered in a silver-grey fuzz, a veritable fur coat that protects the pollen and the ovules (eggs) within the flowers from damage in cold weather. Third, although neither of the catkins look much like the conspicuous colourful flowers we normally associate with bees (think apple, sunflower or pumpkin flowers), what they lack in colour they make up for in scent cues, and nectar and pollen production, that ensure that spring-active bees find them. In exchange for the critical nectar and pollen, they provide to bees in early spring, pussy willows are pollinated by the bees that visit them.

We all love pussy willows for their soft grey catkins, and if you are anything like me, you rush out and cut the lovely stems to put into vases in your house as harbingers of spring. I celebrate this human ritual, but let’s also remember to leave pussy willow catkins for the bees too. A good rule of thumb when harvesting any wild plant is to only take 20 percent and leave 80 percent for other living things. If you see evidence of others having harvested pussy willow stems, move on to another spot to do your harvesting. As many experienced pussy willow harvesters know, many of the pussy willow stems that are brought inside and put in water will produce roots. When you have a chance in spring, replant those stems where you are able to give back a wonderful, reliable source of nectar and pollen for bees in spring.

 

Male and Female pussy willow catkins

Catkins

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