Sunflowers prove irresistible to bees and their ‘pollinator pals’

It’s not just the bees that are a-buzzin’ in Craig Scarborough’s backyard vineyard in Glen Ellen these days. Craig’s skill saw is also buzzing as it cuts 30 donated wine barrels into the 60 half-barrel planters for The Great Sunflower Project, a bee-related project sponsored by Cittaslow in the Sonoma Valley.

By early September the planters will be in place, full of yellow and black sunflowers, at 20 sites from Oakmont through the Carneros.

“It’s all part of a collaborative project that draws attention to the importance of pollinators to our food crops and to our daily diet here in Sonoma Valley and elsewhere in the United States,” said Alana Coburn, one of the project’s co-chairs.

For the past two years, the Pollinator Pals team has worked to educate Valley residents about bees, and other pollinators, through workshops and trainings. Members have sold honey ice cream, and even presented performances by bee dancers.

This year, Coburn said, as one of several activities focusing on bees, Pollinator Pals is partnering with The Great Sunflower Project, a four-year-old bee count initiated and led by scientists at San Francisco State University. Barrels full of sunflowers will be placed at key locations to promote awareness of the importance of bees to our ecosystem.

“The sites will also be the locations for the project’s late-season bee counts that will occur in September when the ‘Lemon Queen’ sunflowers bloom most profusely,” said Coburn.

Sunflowers and late blooming plants are very important to bees, according to Shelley Arrowsmith, a local beekeeper and one of the organizers of the project. Once the blackberry bloom is over in June, there is very little native forage for bees in Sonoma Valley. That is when the sunflowers and other late blooming plants in private gardens become vital to the survival of many species of pollinators.

“Last year we showed people how to plant their gardens in a bee-friendly way,” Arrowsmith explained. “This year we will invite them to also participate in our sunflower bee counts, and to see first-hand how the bees harvest nectar and pollen from sunflowers and other garden plants.”

The project is already up and running. Over a dozen volunteers from all over the Valley meet weekly. All of the project’s 30 wine barrels have been donated, as have the 200 five-gallon pots needed for planting and the raw materials for innovative, low-tech watering systems that will be used at each site.

The project’s sunflower seeds are germinating in a greenhouse at Arrowsmith Farms in Schellville, and will be moved to shade-houses at Sonoma Ecology Center’s Garden Park on 7th Street East in Sonoma. There they will grow and mature until transferred to display sites around the valley.

So far the project has been a classic grassroots effort, which is typical of a Cittaslow project, Virginia Hubbell, founder of Sonoma Valley Cittaslow,“Building community through volunteerism, a concern for the food chain, and working sustainability through reuse and recycling, are all part of the ethic that is promoted by Cittaslow.”

The Great Sunflower Project’s public activities will be held through September. In addition to the sunflower displays and local bee counts, the Pollinator Pals will also have a booth at the Vintage Festival, September 28-30, where they will once again feature “Cittaslow Honey Ice Cream!” This delicious ice cream is custom made by Three Twins Ice Cream from locally sourced organic dairy products.

To learn more about Cittaslow Pollinator Pals Garden Group, email

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