Making Honey

The nectar flow is here in Maryland!  These exciting words represent a lot of hope and excitement, not to mention work, for honey bees and beekeepers alike.   My large hive has three supers in place as the girls arduously work important nectar sources during this brief, but important time period.  Those now heavy top boxes contain the curing honey that I hope to harvest in the summer, a queen excluder keeping her out of the honey stores.  The lower four boxes contain a mixture of brood, pollen and honey, which will stay with them through the winter.  The new hive is also working hard, their queen laying lots of brood as they build up volume and collect nectar as well.  I will not take anything from this new hive despite their robust build up.

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The birds and the bees showing off their girl power: the bees are busy making honey during this nectar flow while the hens are laying lots of eggs after the business of integrated pest management in our yard!

The nectar flow or honey flow is simply the time of bloom of plants providing nectar.  The flow varies by geographic region and isn’t the same time each year, depending upon the weather.  The flow is actually quite short, only lasting a few weeks.  It is a critical time period in which honey bees collect the bulk of the nectar needed to make their beloved honey, their food to preserve life and their place in the ecosystem.

In order to maximize this short window of nectar collection, honey bees have been building up their bee volume.  The queen in my big hive has laid eggs diligently in a healthy, solid brood pattern in anticipation of the honey flow, knowing that the work they put in now will be life sustaining.

Eggs initially stand upright and are quite tiny.  By day three, they have fallen over and slowly become larva.  The larva is capped on day nine where it continues to develop.  21 days after being laid, worker bees emerge and immediately go to work inside of the hive, not foraging until several weeks later, then working until their death.   Planting lots of bee friendly plants makes their work easier.

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Eggs!  Those tiny white slivers in the center of each perfectly formed hexagonal cell are newly laid eggs.  They can be difficult to spot, particularly if the lighting doesn’t catch the cells in the frames just right.  Beekeepers always look for the queen during inspections to make sure she’s present and functioning correctly.  She can be elusive, particularly with thousands of her kin in the hive, often covering her.  Finding evidence of her presence works too.  In this case, eggs show that she’s been there within the past three days.  Each cell should only contain one egg and ideally, they should be laid cell by cell without disruption in a solid pattern.

 

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Here the eggs have become larva.  Nurse bees visit and feed them constantly before capping them on day nine. 

 

 

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The solid capped brood seen here surrounded by nectar and pollen is referred to as a rainbow pattern.  All is in order here.  A good queen can lay as many as 2,000 eggs a day to build up volume.  These bees are needed to assure the future of the hive as they forage for nectar to store for months when flowers are not blooming.

 

 

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This nectar which will later become honey can not happen absent lots of bees.  The brood seen earlier is necessary to afford the bee power to maintain the hive and forage for nectar to pack into cells.  Once cured, the honey bees begin to cap the honey with wax as seen in the above left corner.

In Maryland, two of the most important plants for honey are actually trees- tulip poplar and black locust per HoneyBeeNet, a site maintained by NASA that tracks important pollen and nectar plants by geographic region.  While there are many bee friendly plants, the critical sources are the ones shown to have a significant impact during the flow.

It can be hard to see the blossoms of tulip poplar trees since they are such large trees. I knew mine were blooming from the way my girls exited their hives and headed up, up, up!  With the high winds we’ve experienced the past few days, proof was found on the ground in the form of blooms knocked off of the trees.

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This is a blossom from a tulip poplar tree.  Since they are located up high with the foliage, they are difficult to see, even with binoculars.  I rely on the bees’ behavior, timing and the elements to know that they are in bloom. 

 

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My honey bees are fortunate to have old tulip poplars situated close to their hives, long established prior to moving here .  I took this picture to put their size into context against the chicken coop.  The tulip poplars in this picture are the ones to the right side of the coop with the wider trunks. 

Black locust trees in bloom can be easier to spot since they don’t tend to get quite as immense as tulip poplar.  I also found many blooms on the ground from black locust tree after the windy days we experienced.  The scent of black locust blooms is so sweet that it’s easy to appreciate the lure for the bees.  Honey from black locust has excellent flavor and aroma.

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Black locust blooms knocked off by the wind.  The heavy scent from these blooms often leads you to the tree before you even see the blooms or identify the tree.

 

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A black locust tree with clusters of blooms hanging almost like grapes in the spring sunshine.

In addition to tulip poplar and black locust trees, Maryland honey bees rely on basswood, sumac, blackberry, white Dutch clover and thistles as their main sources of nectar, interesting because the trees bloom early in the season and the others are often considered to be weeds.

Dandelions are welcome harbingers of spring for honey bees, providing important pollen and nectar for bees rearing young and building up for the nectar flow.  Clovers provide food sources throughout the summer once the flow has ended.  These are considered to be weeds by most humans, but represent important food sources to pollinators.  Keep that in mind as you work your landscape this spring and summer.  Please consider leaving some dandelions and clovers behind as valuable food sources for the very pollinators that provide our food sources through their efficient pollination services.

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Dandelions are among the first bloomers of spring and tend to signal the beginning of the nectar flow.  They provide abundant pollen because the blooms close at night and during bad weather, keeping the pollen from washing away from rain or dew.  The grains are large and easily packed into pollen pouches.  Their timing is great, arriving very early spring and lasting until late summer, oftentimes when little food is available. 

Spraying these weeds not only removes them from the food buffet needed by pollinators but also causes bee losses because nutritional forage is removed and the chemicals sprayed on them can be taken back to the hives causing further damage.  Consider that honey bees have no idea if you’ve sprayed a food source.  While your toxic chemical may not kill them on contact, it could have quite negative effects as trace amounts of poison are carried back to their hives.  For a small insect, trace amounts of  pesticides can be detrimental.

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Once the spring nectar flow ends, clovers continue to offer food .  Letting clovers go in your yard provides valuable nutrition to bees during times of dearth.

 

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These girls are enjoying my blackberry bushes in early summer.  NASA’s Honey Bee Net team lists blackberries as an important food source for my area.  The white flowers produce excellent tasting honey but keep in mind that they are a bramble and require care.  I prune mine every year else they would easily and quickly take over.

I avoid synthetic chemicals on my property, hand picking bugs in my vegetable garden,  pulling up weeds that encroach on my flower beds and letting my lawn become something more interesting and nutritional than a patch of green grass filled.  My chickens offer their own approach to integrated pest management, devouring bugs as they free range, although not always just the harmful insects.  This organic approach has led to an amazing diversity of insect species from praying mantis to various and numerous native bees to parasitic wasps that maintain environmental balance on my property.   These are nature’s pesticides and they’ve served us well.

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Tomato hornworms defoliate and damage tomato plants.  They can be difficult to spot in the leafy growth of tomato plants because of their similar coloring.

 

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Plant CSI:  spotting their frass (or poop) is an important clue to their presence.  I become obsessed with finding them once I find evidence of their presence, not as easy as it may seem since they blend in so well and I tend to have lots of tomato plants that allow them to move from one plant to another.

 

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Nature’s pesticides in the form of parasitic wasps.  The female lays eggs inside targeted insects, in this case tomato hornworms.  When the eggs hatch, the young wasps consume their prey before continuing on with their integrated pest management as they eat up aphids, bagworms, potato beetles, cucumber beetles, cutworms, Japanese beetles, squash vine borers, and the list goes on!  I don’t see how a synthetic pesticide can top this natural remedy in coolness alone!

 

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A view into a native bee house I made with my children using an old bird house my son made in scouts.  We cut paper straws and taped them together in bundles before inserting them into the face of the bird house which provides cover from the elements.  Within 48 hours of hanging it next to a blooming holly bush buzzing with various bee activity, mason bees found it and began backfilling the tubes with eggs and mud to carry on their lineage.  Native bees are an important part of our environment and need our support since they suffer from similar woes as honey bees.  They supplement pollination and in some cases, can be more efficient than honey bees. 

 

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Corn gluten meal offers an alternative to toxic, synthetic herbicides.  When choosing any pesticide, pausing to consider implications on down the line is important.  Not only are chemicals toxic to humans when we’re exposed to them or when they find their way into our water sources, but they can have profoundly negative impacts on our pollinators and wildlife which effects our overall ecosystem.

While I appreciate that this approach does not work for everyone and that sometimes chemicals are deemed necessary, never spray when pollinators are flying and certainly not when plants are in bloom.  If you must, spray late evening when most pollinators are not active to avoid contact and to allow the chemicals to dry overnight.  You can even paint on your chemical with a brush instead of spraying for a more targeted approach if you absolutely must use pesticides.  And by all means, read your label instructions.

We know that pesticides which include herbicides, insecticides and fungicides are problematic for pollinators, but keep in mind that they are concerning for humans as well.   A little goes a long way, just as the humble honey bee quietly works to pollinate close to a third of the foods we eat, a tiny animal contributing to our ecosystem in a magnanimous way but now negatively impacted by our environmental choices.

In Maryland, the nectar flow has historically occurred mid April lasting until the end of May, just a brief four to six week period of high activity, varying in onset and duration based on the weather.  The flow is actually moving earlier each year as determined by NASA, likely due to climate change.  Once the honey flow ends, honey bees seek nectar from other plants which is where you can play an important role in their health and longevity.

The timing of the nectar flow may seem earlier to some of you since planting in earnest doesn’t usually take hold here until around Mother’s Day.  That’s because most of the significant plants that honey bees need are trees that bloom early.  As such, planting a tree is great way to support honey bees, particularly those indicated as important food sources by HoneyBeeNet.  There are other good trees for honey bees such as red maple, sourwood, red buds, serviceberry and fringe trees, all trees I’ve successfully planted here.  Planting trees is a great way to pay it forward.  Depending on the size of the tree you select to plant and the duration of time you spend in your current home, you may never even see a particular tree reach it’s glory, but golly, how you’ve made a difference!

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Red bud trees offer such welcome color in spring, but knowing these trees are also good food sources makes them a fun tree to plant for future generations.  They grow relatively quickly and without any fuss since they are native to this area.

 

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A young fringe tree I planted in the fall already blooming.

Spring planting is here and while there are many bee friendly plants to incorporate into your landscape and garden, digging a hole and plopping a tree into it can make a difference to future generations of bees and humans alike since honey bees are so closely tied to our food supply and ecosystem.  Trees offer wildlife food and habitat, even after they’ve met their end.  If you don’t have the room, there’s lots of bee friendly plants you can incorporate into your yards that will support pollinators as well (see the resources below for more information specific to your area).  And don’t overlook bushes as good food sources.

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If you’re thinking of adding bee friendly plants to your property this spring, don’t overlook shrubs.  Hollies make a good food source for honey bees.  During the brief reprieve from the rain we had recently, my girls were able to get out and forage close to home where they covered some of my Ilex bushes currently in bloom.  I captured this girl hard at work, just one of many on these bushes.  Hollies provide bees with nectar and those tiny blooms become berries that birds can later eat in the colder months when bugs aren’t as plentiful, in addition to providing much needed shelter, making shrubs another good option for your yard.

Planting both native and non native bee friendly plants can help the bees past the critical nectar flow when food sources are in great demand, making a real difference for honey bees and all pollinators in need of our support.  Before visiting your nursery, spend some time consulting a good list of pollinator friendly plants and make sure to choose plants that work in your site selection.  For my U.S. followers, I’ve listed three good resources below along with an image from one of my favorite posters as starting points.  Planting pollinator forage and then not contaminating that food source with pesticides is a great way to help save the bees!

There’s a lot involved in making honey.  Healthy honey bees need diverse and abundant food from nectar rich plants, absent chemicals.  One pound of delicious honey requires honey bees to visit 2,000,000 plants!  Everyone can do their part by planting bee friendly plants that benefit all of our pollinators, and ultimately us as humans.  Those plants may be native and/ or non native nectar producing plants, wildflowers, herbs left to bloom, bushes, trees, or easiest of all, weeds like clovers, dandelions, and goldenrods.

After the short nectar flow ends, the bees will thank you for your efforts as they seek other nectar sources to sustain them in summer and fall.  Offering such food sources to pollinators and keeping them chemical free will reward you with the sounds of buzzing and fluttering as a parade of wings in different shapes, sizes and hues visit your offerings.  Happy Spring bee friends!

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“Bees dying reflects a flowerless landscape and a dysfunctional food system.” 

Marla Spivak, “Why Bees are Disappearing,”  TED talk, Sept 2013

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Good resources for bee friendly/ pollinator friendly plants in your area:

NASA Honey Bee Net

USDA Native Plants for Summer and Fall Honey Bee Forage

Xerces Society Pollinator-Friendly Plant Lists by region

Plant These for Bees poster (the Garden Diaries)

 

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