While the wind gusts outside and temperatures are still keeping us bundled up, we have turned a corner in mid February; spring is imminent once again. At the Winter Solstice, honey bees began anew, those surviving the winter thus far coaxing their queen to begin laying eggs in preparation of the anticipated spring nectar flow. While seemingly far away to us humans, the bees know spring is coming and that they need to be ready for this short but vital burst of activity that will afford them the nectar to turn into precious honey that will sustain their colony for the rest of the year. As such, they need to rear brood and to rear brood, you need protein in the form of pollen.
We’ve had some warm days interspersed with these cold ones and I was encouraged by the flourishing activity of my remaining hive as they flew out of their hive, orienting, cleansing and working, for which bees are well known. My busy bees brought in pollen and searched for water. Looking around, there’s not much blooming but these resourceful, smart honey bees found skunk cabbage blooming in nearby woods. While not a key food source for honey bees, it is an important one as honey bees need pollen as a valuable protein source to build up their brood and feed to their young, revving up their volume for spring’s busy “all hands on deck” nectar flow.
It’s a good sign to see honey bees returning with full pollen pouches on these late winter days because it tells me that the queen is laying eggs for which the workers will need pollen to feed this batch of honey bees. I took the opportunity to open up my surviving hive and that’s just what I found- a small patch of capped brood, my lovely marked queen from last year, prudently laying eggs for this new generation and lots and lots of worker bees. I’m delighted to see that this queen not only made it through the winter thus far, but that she has plenty of company to keep the hive going. I’m even more happy to report that they maintained a wonderfully calm disposition to my intrusions, suggesting that this hive has some of the genetics of my favored queen that I recently lost.
It’s not a time to cheer yet though, as winter is long from over. As the hive ramps up their volume, their need for resources will dramatically increase. This is the time of year that honey bees can easily run out of food and starve. My bees seem to be in good shape with ample capped honey yet but I will keep a careful eye on them and supplement if necessary. They did consume the pollen patty strips I offered and now they’re bringing in the preferred fresh pollen they’re finding.
Chickens are also sensing the gradual shift beginning with lengthening daylight hours. All but the Welsummer are laying regularly and we are again flush with eggs, seemingly overnight. Some of my girls went through early molting, losing feathers and stopping their lay cycles in the fall. I increased their protein and waited patiently.
Isabella the Easter Egger was the first to molt and served as my benchmark. It was interesting to watch the process as she lost feathers around her neck and tail in the fall, then the color of her comb faded and egg production ceased. Her feathers grew back slowly, the first signs of which were quills poking through bare skin, prepared to house new feathers. As soon as the feathers were back in place and daylight hours began to increase, her comb became bright red again, literally from one day to the next. I asked her if I’d start to see her pretty eggs again when I saw this and she rewarded me with one of her lovely pale green eggs the very next day!
For now, the girls have limited free ranging as we are plagued by the presence of a Cooper’s hawk. After a recent near miss, I’m taking no chances, particularly as a good friend has lost several of her hens now to hungry hawks with easy vantage points through bare trees. They don’t like it so I do my best to get them out for a few minutes here and there under heavy supervision, generally towards evening. They love going into the garden and cleaning up for me and I find that to be a good spot for them since it’s confined and they tend to stay together. I can move around them, watching the skies and tree line.
The garden is beginning to show signs of new life. The first winter aconite recently emerged the day after a light snow fall. I’m also seeing daffodil and tulips begin to send up stalks through the heavy dirt and mulch, albeit too early for my liking. Spinach that looked bedraggled is gaining ground, my lettuce continues to provide and alas, weeds are slowly popping up in and around the vegetable boxes.
Despite the bareness of most of my property, I still find beauty in the winter landscape. I have learned to patiently wait to cut back many plants until spring, thereby providing winter interest in otherwise bare patches of soil and more importantly, provide food and habitat for animals. I find these spent plants interesting, despite their lack of color, recognizing life within these plants exists below the surface and that the promise of spring is to bring these plants back from the depths of the soil where they too are anxiously awaiting warmer days.
Bare branched trees provide greater vantage points not just for hawks, but for humans as well, allowing us to see where we may not the rest of the year and to take interest in things otherwise overlooked by the density of leaves, weeds, and brambles. Breathing in the cold, crisp air is literally a breath of fresh air from our heated homes, altogether invigorating and insightful.
Now, to figure out what deliciousness I’m going to bake with all of these fresh eggs for my Valentines! Happy Valentine’s Day!
Nature is full of genius, full of divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand. – Henry David Thoreau