March Madness

The one thing that’s reliable about the weather in March for Maryland is its very unreliability.  We’ve had unusually warm days, reaching into the 70’s, and then cold, snowy days with overnight temperatures that have dipped into the mid 20’s.  I’ve lived here long enough to know that it’s too soon to plant in earnest and that patience is needed for successful gardening.  This year, I have to say I’ve been tempted more than usual with so much sunshine and warm temperatures to negotiate.  In fact, the whole cycle is early this year after an unremarkable winter.

I like to keep notes on what happens in my garden and with my bees from year to year for comparison purposes.  Even just a few quick notes with temperatures proves helpful.  Last year I received a lovely hand made book from my sister in law who is an awesome artist.  Wanting to use it in a meaningful way since so much time was invested in it’s construction, I decided to turn it into a visual garden journal.  I made a point to take pictures of my garden and my yard throughout the year and I now have pictures to fall back on for each month of the year for 2015.  My entries for March were sparse last year after a harsh winter and all I see are images of late winter snows, a few crocuses and hellebores blooming.

Contrasted to this year, now late March and it seems everything is bursting at the seems.  Crocuses bloomed weeks ago, as did daffodils and hellebores.  Tulips, hyacinths and forsythia are blooming already and the tree buds are busting open.  Red maples, red bud trees, cherry blossoms, even the lovely blooms of invasive Bradford Pears are all in their glory, and it’s not even April.  Remarkably, dandelions and clovers are also beginning and they typically signal the start of the nectar flow here.

To produce honey, honey bees need to gather nectar.  The honey nectar flow, or flow for short, is the time of bloom of the plants providing the nectar.  It’s the critical time period when the bees store nectar to make honey.  The flow varies from geographical region to region and isn’t exactly the same time each year, depending on the weather.

March is typically a time of spring buildup for honey bees.  The queen resumed laying eggs at the winter solstice and the bees began ramping up efforts to increase their hive volume.  Usually around now, the bees allow drone brood but I found drone brood in late February this year!  Why does that matter?  Drones have one job and that is to mate with queens.  They do not forage, take care of the hives, build wax comb or contribute to any other necessary hive chore.  They simply eat and meet in drone congregation areas to mate with queens. There’s no doubt that they maintain a vital role in sustaining life for honey bees, but it’s also a source of many jokes about the laziness of the drones.  Given their larger size, they also eat significantly more.  For these reasons, and I’m sure many we don’t understand as humans, honey bees wait on drone brood to protect their resources and focus on building worker volume in anticipation of the busy  nectar flow.

I’m curious to see how this translates into honey this year since it’s clear that the flow is going to be early.  Typically for Carroll County, Maryland our flow runs from mid April through late May, but the bees are bringing in pollen and nectar now.  This is worrisome because many hives do not yet have the volume built up to manage a nectar flow and the nectar flow is their lifeline for the rest of the year since most of the nectar needed to make honey for the rest of the year is acquired chiefly during the flow.

Busy entry way as foraging honey bees return with full pollen pouches on their rear legs.  Pale greens and various hues of  yellow are seen in this picture taken last week.

It may seem surprising that the nectar flow for any given year is earlier than most people start planting, typically around Mother’s Day here in Maryland, and that’s because the richest sources of nectar come from early bloomers like red maples, tulip poplars and black locust in our area.  Those are all trees and natives as well.  Keep that in mind if you want to do something for the bees; planting early blooming trees like the three I mentioned is a great way to help honey bees in your area.  Even if it takes years for those trees to mature, you are providing something highly valuable to them in the years to come, regardless of whether or not you ever see these trees reach their full glory.

Dandelions and clovers are also much needed food sources for honey bees exiting winter with little resources remaining.  Leaving dandelions and clovers in your yard provides a great service to bees in need of pollen to feed their young at this critical time period.  This one action can make a big difference to the bees in your area.

bee on dandelion
This honey bee is finding much needed pollen to feed young brood on a late March day.

To find out specifically which native nectar sources are important to honey bees in your area, go to the NASA site  You’ll be presented with a map that is broken into 14 regions based on natural patterns of land use and flora.  Find your state and note which sources are most important to honey bees and their general bloom times.

NASA has determined that the flow is actually getting earlier each year by about one half day.  It’s believed to be caused by climate change.  The concern is that plants and pollination could be moving out of sync. Plants will still be pollinated, but bees could go hungry.  Given that honey bees are responsible for pollinating about a third of the foods we eat, not enough bees could translate into less food for us.  The slogan “No bees, No food” suddenly becomes quite clear and the call to action now becomes more relevant with an understanding of the vital role honey bees play in our food supply.

Honey bee losses are common in late February and early March when bees have dwindling resources, yet little is available for forage.  A cold snap can completely do them in, particularly if their volume is not able to help sustain the needs of their hive to reach their resources, so I am grateful that my two hives survived the winter.  As a beekeeper, my goal is not just survival though;  I want my bees to thrive.  Fortunately, the one hive is doing just that.  She is growing so quickly with brood, pollen and nectar stores, that I added a fifth medium box to make sure they have adequate room.  It’s the end of March and that hive is five mediums high!  Crazy!

The hive next door is not doing as well and I’ve had to borrow a frame of brood to boost their numbers.  It is at times like this that I’m grateful to have more than one hive.  I can compare and contrast and borrow resources as necessary.  Absent a strong hive to compare with, I may have thought my little hive was doing fine, but she’s struggling.  As their steward, this is a time I can offer assistance, just by borrowing from their neighbor.

Water sources are important to bees even this early in the season.  I put out this flat dish with rocks for them to access water early in February and I’m finding many bees drinking every time I look.

Given how well the big hive is doing, I was able to borrow from them without much set back, but I always weigh the pros and cons of such actions.  I’ll be curious to see the impact of the frame of brood I gave the little hive.  I suspect their queen is fine, but that their volume was not large enough for growth since it takes so much energy to rear brood.  They had plenty of honey and pollen stores left over from winter and are bringing in new available resources so the boost in worker brood may be just what they needed.  More bees make the work easier on the hive. Should they decide to rear a new queen from the brood I provided, then I’ll know it was actually a failing queen.

The March Madness in my backyard right now extends beyond a plethora of plants blooming early and a swirl of activity at my hives; the chicks are coming!  I am now two weeks out from the much anticipated call from the post office asking me to pick up my day old chicks.  As such, coop construction is in full swing.  Not much could be done in the cold but now that the weather has broken (and we have a deadline), the coop roof has been shingled, the copula constructed, a weather vane ordered and digging is commencing for laying hardware cloth at least six inches under the soil for protection from predators.  My husband is essentially building a “Chicken Ft Knox.”

The garden is waking also.  Lettuces are taking off, sugar snap peas are stretching towards the sun and support structures, kale and beets have sprouted, as have poppy seed bread seeds I sowed a few weeks ago.  In my basement, I have tomato, orange bell pepper, basil and a few ornamental starts thriving under grow lights.  Raspberry, blackberry and blueberry plants are all showing signs of renewal as well.

This is always an exciting time of the year for me and I know for many of you too with the promise of warmer weather and the notion of renewal and new beginnings.  This year, the excitement of the chick’s imminent arrival makes it that much more robust.  Next up, a shopping spree for chicks!  Happy Spring!  Peep!  Peep!


Note on collage pictures:  To see those images larger, just click on a picture and it will expand.  This is particularly helpful on the pictures with bee pollen pouches for more detail.


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