Willow: Early Buds for Bees, and Sustenance for Many

By Carmen Harris

As we begin our warm-cold dance & windy journey toward spring you will inevitably notice periods of time when the weather is so fine and fair that our bees can be seen flying about in search of sustenance. I’ve already noticed them on our warm days sipping on the resin of wood that I’ve been cutting while I work outside, doing their best to seek whatever they can during this ‘fallow’ time in the plant world before buds break open in Spring. What are the early foods that our bees can eat to sustain themselves at this time of the year? 

Willow, one our earliest budding shrubs, will open their catkins or ‘pussy’ buds at the end of February to early March, displaying delicious pollen for our bees to sup on. Beekeepers will often place their hives of bees near stands of willow for early foraging and for the health and wellness of their hives.

Let’s take a wee look at the willow who so kindly buds early for our bees. The term “pussy willow” refers to several species of willows that get furry gray catkins. Generally, the first spring “pussy” buds, often have a lovely silken, soft grey fur about them – like a cat or a rabbit. Later, the fur disappears and is replaced by either male or female flowers, depending on which type of plant you have. Pussy willows are dioecious, meaning there are both male and female trees. Although only the male flowers produce pollen, both sexes produce nectar.

In New Mexico we have a common willow known locally as ‘Coyote willow’ or ‘Sandbar Willow’ (Salix exigua). You have most likely seen, played with and hidden coyote willow along ditches, riverbanks, and historically, underneath cottonwood trees around Santa Fe and other parts of New Mexico.

Children at Mountain Kids! will have interacted with coyote willow at the Upper Canyon Road Preserve and along the Santa Fe river. 

Coyote willow is a special habitat for many critters, one being the Willow Fly Catcher. It is also browsed avidly by deer throughout the winter, and to some extent by sheep, goat, rabbit and cattle, in summer and early fall. Beaver also eats the trunks of willow, along with those of cottonwood, gnawing the inner bark or cambium as food, and placing the sticks as parts of dams or lodges. 

Coyote willow roots freely from cuttings when put straight in water or into damp soil. I like to carefully and considerately cut a few new shoots with tight buds on them in early February, place them in a vase or jar and observe the buds opening in my warm home earlier than they would outside. Keep your eyes out for these special, soft buds, and for the bees that rely on them!

Historic Winter Hike: Tsankawi

Tsankawi is an amazing winter hike, only 40 minutes from Santa Fe.  In fact, Tsankawi is great any time of year, but can be hot without cloud cover during summer months.

Tsankawi is a part of Bandelier Nationl Monument, but without handrails, concrete ramps and steps. At Tsankawi you can pretend you are explorer discovering this place for the first time, with waist deep grooves in the paths and a myriad of caves to explore.

The rock here was created when the Valles Caldera blew it’s top, and ash and lava flowed down to form what is now called volcanic tuff.  It is a soft rock that the pueblo people dug into to make the cavates. Cavates are human made caves that were a part of the pueblo peoples settlement.  There are many intriguing cavates to be explored on this hike.

The 1.6 mile loop trail involves three ladders, so be prepared to navigate these. The first one is short (and can actually be avoided if you prefer), while the second can be missed entirely by taking a slot trail, and the third, at the far end of the mesa, is the longest, and unavoidable. 

I like to do the trail “backwards” with younger kids so they can climb up the long ladder instead of down which seems easier for them.  To do it this way, stay right and walk along the edge when the arrow points up to the left. You will also avoid the second ladder this way. There is a drop-off on one side, but the path is wide enough to avoid heart-palpitations, for the most part.

Once you reach the caves, be sure to stop and sit in one together. (Be careful to tread lightly, as it is easy to kick up dust in there, which makes sitting inside no fun.) In the cave, have a snack, tell a story, break out your long lost flute or recorder, or just imagine what life would have been like for the kids who lived here.  Ask your kids what it would be like to live here. What would they do for fun? Would they work in the fields? These are fun ideas to ponder with your kids and can provoke conversations for days and weeks to come.  Next time you take away their screen time, they can pretend they live in a cave and need to find their own fun. Just imagine…

Getting There

Take 285 North to Pojoaque. Take Hwy 502 West toward Los Alamos. Take Hwy 4 toward White Rock. The trailhead is on the left just before the first stop light you see.  Park here and grab a ticket at the kiosk to put in your car which is your entrance fee ($25/car). Pick up a map for $1 at the entrance to learn more while you hike.