Valentine’s Day in our house included some bee inspired chocolates that I made this year. In Maryland, February is a dicey time for beekeepers and is referred to as Starvation Month. Bees that made it through the harshest part of our winter, frequently don’t make it through February due to starvation. Consider that the bees’ stores are running low, yet the queen was signaled by the winter solstice to begin laying eggs in anticipation of spring so resources are in high demand. On warmer days, bees can move about inside the hive to what is left of their food stores, all the while keeping their brood warm. On very cold days, they maintain cluster to protect the brood but may not be in close proximity to honey and can die from starvation.
Maryland weather is like a roller coaster at times. One week ago, we had temperatures in the single digits- snow, ice, high winds, talk of a polar vortex. Yesterday, the mercury rose into the 50’s! Bees were flying, seemingly delighted to escape the confines of their hives, looking for food sources. But there is little to be had in February. Plants need warmer temperatures to mature as well. Skunk cabbage and early maples are important this time of year when bees can get out and start looking for food sources. Beekeepers often open our hives on these warmer winter days to assess the bees overall situation, adding emergency food and pollen if necessary.
I was relieved to see that my bees made it through last weekend’s awful cold and that they still had some resources, yet I gave them more since I don’t know how much honey they have below. If they don’t need it, they won’t take it or even remove it from the hive if they don’t want it in there, but I’d rather give them more than they need and let them decide. That’s what my role as a beekeeper is, not to decide for them, just to assist their efforts.
Since it was so warm and the bees were flying, I set out a bottle of sugar syrup. I have noticed all winter on the warmer days that the bees go to the area where I keep their water in the warmer months so I set up a glass quart bottle with 1:1 sugar syrup. It didn’t take long for the girls to find it and to feast. The lid of the quart bottle has small holes punched into it and it creates a vacuum when it’s inverted so it doesn’t run out. I set it on top of three caps I had and the bees went underneath and ate at will. As odd as this sounds, the sight of this made me happy.
It made me so happy that they found my offering and wanted it, that I went inside and dipped a spoon into a honey jar and brought that out too. Keep in mind that the honey jar I dipped into was honey from their hive, not store bought honey. I would never give honey from the grocery store to my bees. Honey from grocery stores has been found to contain spores from American foulbrood disease. AFB is the most serious disease of bees, can quickly kill off an entire colony and then spread to others. It is caused by a bacteria, is very difficult to treat and since the spores live on, all hardware must be burned to ensure that the spores have been killed to contain the disease. State Bee Inspectors are trained to look for it upon inspection and in Maryland, our inspector Bill Troup has an amazing dog named Klinker to assist in this search that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Klinker actually sniffs it out because it has a very distinct smell.
Not knowing origin and given that commercial honey comes from many sources, store bought honey then could potentially contain American foulbrood disease spores that could kill off my bees. And since there’s a problem with honey from China making it’s way into the US, often under different, diluted pretenses, I wouldn’t want to take that risk either since honey from China has a history of safety issues including traces of banned antibiotics and lead within their honey. No thank you . I only give my bees their honey. Absent that, sugar is a good source and it can be given in granular form in a pinch or made into simple sugar syrup or bee candy. It is easily digestible by bees. The bees liked my offerings so much that this morning when temperatures rose again, they returned and are out there now despite light drizzle, eating their fill.
As spring beckons, honey bees continue to ramp up their efforts to be ready for the impending and much anticipated nectar flow. To produce honey, bees need to gather nectar. The honey nectar flow, or the flow as beekeepers refer to it, is the time of bloom of plants providing the nectar. It varies from geographical region to region and isn’t exactly the same time each year, being largely dependent upon the weather. The flow itself is a relatively short period of high activity both for bees and beekeepers. It only lasts a few weeks and it’s the most critical time period for bees to gather and store up nectar to make our beloved honey.
So inside of the hive now in late winter, the queen is busy laying eggs. In approximately 21 days after she lays an egg, new bees will emerge and be ready to take on their roles. They don’t immediately head out to forage, but rather take on a variety of roles inside the hive, leaving the hive in search of nectar and pollen as their last job. They forage for their hive until their death.
Right now, the bees know spring is around the corner and that they need to ramp up their numbers to be ready for “all hands on deck” when the flow begins. Here in Carroll County, Maryland our flow typically begins mid April and lasts until the end of May. Earlier than you may have thought, huh? Most people are used to outdoor planting beginning around Mother’s Day, but for bees their most important food sources are early bloomers, among them dandelion, clover, tulip poplar trees, maples, and black locust trees.
These early nectar sources are vital for bees that multiply rapidly from here out. While there are many bee friendly nectar sources, the native nectar sources are of particular importance. Native plants naturally occur in the region in which they evolved. They are adapted to the local soils and weather conditions and can be easier to maintain as a result because they typically require less watering and fertilizing. They also tend to be more disease and insect resistant. Need I really go on? Well, they provide vital food and shelter for native wildlife, including native bees, they help preserve balance in our natural ecosystems and if all of this isn’t enough, they are beautifully incorporated into our landscapes.
Not all nurseries carry native plants and I’ve learned that finding the exact species to our area can be challenging but there are lots of resources available. With some planning, your efforts will prove worthwhile (see my list of resources below for more information). I love to see bees, honey bees and native bees, visiting my plantings and I feel pride in making small changes in my backyard that benefit the ecosystem. I like the way Doug Tallamy says it in Bringing Nature Home, “It’s simple: By gardening with native plants, no matter where you live or how small or large your space is, you can help sustain wildlife.”
You can take Doug’s line of thinking even further to extend to sustenance of all life. As environmental stewards we can make choices that support the bees’ nutrition, choosing to incorporate native nectar sources into our landscapes. We help the bees and the bees help us; it’s an amazing mutually beneficial relationship. Share the bounty!
Showing love to bees is as simple as planting bee friendly plants and then avoiding chemicals including pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides, planting natives for an extra bang, buying honey locally to support local beekeepers, educating friends and family, and as a beekeeper, providing resources should they need it during challenging times. Much love to honey bees for their vital role in our world!
Some Native Plant Resources:
University of Maryland Extension Services, https://extension.umd.edu/hgic/native-plants Native Plants of Maryland: What, When and Where, HG#120
Maryland Native Plant Society, http://www.mdflora.org/ , plant lists by county, events and lectures, also lists nurseries in our area selling natives (be sure to verify that they are retail before going)
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping, Chesapeake Bay Watershed, 2003, being updated but current version at library or online http://www.nps.gov/plants/pubs/chesapeake/
Also by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Plant Invaders of Mid-Atlantic Natural Areas, updated in 2010, excellent resource on invasive plants in our area
Good Neighbor Handbook, Potomac Conservancy & the Nature Conservancy, 2009, updated online version available at http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/maryland_dc/placesweprotect/good-neighbor-handbook.pdf
Honey Bee Net (NASA site with local bee forage) http://honeybeenet.gsfc.nasa.gov/, chart indicates which sources are important to bees and bloom times
Bee Smart Pollinator Gardener app (http://www.pollinator.org/beesmartapp.html) by Pollinator Partnership is a great resource for on-the-go bee friendly plant help, perfect to use while at a nursery confronted with a myriad of choices and wondering what might work well in your yard and benefit your bees. Enter your ecoregion by zip code to get a list of pollinator friendly plants for this area, can even choose by pollinator type, ie bees. The Pollinator Partnershp http://www.pollinator.org/index.html has lots of information as well. You can even register your location as SHARE site (Simply Have Areas Reserved for the Environment) and share your pictures of pollinators on your plants.
Xerces Society http://www.xerces.org/, their book Attracting Native Pollinators, 2003 is very good and available at library or Amazon, newsletter, back issues of “Wings” can be downloaded for free or you can become member and receive this twice a year publication with essays from relevant scientists and conservationists with excellent photograpsh
North American Pollinator Campaign http://pollinator.org/nappc/index.html
Conservation Landscaping Guidelines, Eight Essential Elements of Conservation Landscaping, Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council, 2013, hard copy or document can be found at ChesapeakeLandscape.org
The Living Landscape, Rick Darke & Doug Tallmay, 2014
Bringing Nature Home: How you Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Douglas Tallamy, 2007
Native Plants of the Northeast, Donald Leopold, 2005