Waiting on Honey

As the nectar flow draws to a close, the girls diligently forage for the last of their key nectar and pollen sources, storing away the goodness to be turned into honey.  Few tulip poplar and black locust blooms remain, and those that do, are vulnerable to wind and rain.

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The wind and rain knocked down this perfect tulip poplar blossom into my compost pile where ants quickly took advantage of the remaining nectar.

Now that the danger of frost has passed, spring planting fever has taken hold of many home gardeners.  Options abound when adding to your landscape.  Choosing plants that provide food for pollinators is a great way to have a positive impact on the pollinator crisis.  There are many lists of pollinator friendly plants available (some are listed below) and native plant choices will help you have an even greater impact since native plants are typically easier to grow and provide critical biomass to local wildlife, from insects to the birds that eat them, along with the honey bees that pollinate the very foods we humans consume.

This year’s nectar flow has been good to my honey bees.  The hive with the blue queen genetics built up fast and strong, just as their predecessors did, affording them bee volume to work the nectar flow and stash away their treasure.  I added a fourth brood box to accommodate their volume which proved wise since they filled this box with both nectar and brood, putting them in a strong position going forward and thwarting their swarming instincts, at least for the time being.

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The current state of affairs is four medium boxes dedicated to the queen and her brood and four medium boxes for nectar/ honey storage.   And, of course,  fingers crossed that it gets capped and makes it to harvest.

During my inspection on Saturday, I noted that all three supers were chocked full of nectar in every available cell, including the bridge comb built from the queen excluder to the first super.  As such, I went ahead and gave them a fourth medium box with some remaining worked comb I found tucked away and some unworked frames.  I want them to have as much room as possible to keep them happy, collecting nectar and storing it for honey, particularly since it’s swarm season.

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This is box four of the brood chamber, just below the queen excluder that keeps the queen in the lower four boxes and away from the nectar/ honey stores, keeping the honey free of eggs and brood.  The girls built bridge comb to get from one box to the next and filled those cells with nectar which ripped open when I separated the boxes during my inspection, revealing lovely, glistening honey that the girls immediately began eating.

 

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Honey bees frequently build bridge comb in between boxes to make travel in between boxes easier.  In this case, they built bridge comb from the fourth brood box to the queen excluder and then on to the first super box that holds their honey stores.  They even tucked nectar into those cells.  During my inspection, some ripped open when I removed the super and this girl quickly sampled the goodness of her colony.  Her proboscis is visible as she sips the nectar/ honey.

 

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These are swarm cells, empty and dry, a good sign for now but must be monitored should they decide to begin swarming efforts.  Honey bees tend to build swarm cells “just in case.”  Adding royal jelly and laying an egg can happen quickly so I make sure to check on them weekly during swarm season.  Swarms are just a natural way for honey bees to procreate but set beekeepers back.  The bees obviously can’t tell me of their plans, but they do provide clues if I keep up with them.

The honey bees are beginning to cap the tops of the frames.  Plenty of ventilation is key in this endeavor, especially on humid days, to assist with their fanning and curing efforts.  I just switched out my solid inner covers for ventilated inner covers to assist in this effort.

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Nectar that has become honey is beginning to be capped as seen in the top edge of this frame.  The remainder of the frame is full of nectar still curing.

Queens can lay as many as 2,000 eggs per day this time of the year.  While foragers are out busily working blooms to collect pollen and nectar, the queen is laying lots of eggs that nurse bees are tending and guard bees are protecting.  In fact, a few of those guard bees have recently taken their duties a bit too seriously, finding me in the garden, well away from their hives, buzzing and pestering me to let me know they are on duty.  Thanks for the reminder girls, but I have work to do also!

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Lots of eggs seen on this frame of newly drawn wax comb.  A queen lays just one egg per cell that stands straight on day one and falls to the side by day three as it morphs into a larva.  This is one of the new frames I gave to the girls when I checkerboarded their hive to give them lots of room, hoping to deter them from swarming, which they readily drew out with fresh wax comb and which the queen quickly filled with eggs. 

 

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Note the very young larva on the bottom portion of this frame.  The eggs just recently became larva, the bright white color of the larva an indication of health.  The top part of the frame shows now capped brood, baby honey bees developing beneath the wax comb protection.  This volume of eggs, larva and capped brood is important because more bees makes for a healthy hive that can function most efficiently.

With the heat of summer beginning to set in, it is important to provide a water source for our bees and pollinators as well.  Despite a creek in the woods of my property, I always provide close water sources to make their work easier.  I maintain three shallow dishes around the house and there is always activity at them.  Flat rocks, wine corks and sticks provide landing surfaces and safe areas from which to drink, else honey bees can easily slip and drown.  Swimming is not one of the honey bees’ many talents so sticks and corks give them something to grab onto if they do fall in and need to swim briefly to safety.

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One of three shallow water sources I keep close to the bee hives.  The shallow rocks and floating twigs provide safety from accidental drowning.  I check on these water sources early in the morning when I let my dog out and again in the evening on hot days, adding water as needed so the girls don’t waste valuable time flying to other water sources that may be less savory as well, like swimming pool water.

The girls will use this water for basic hydration needs and as makeshift air conditioning on hot days as they fan the water through the hive.  To further cool down the colony, bees will leave the hive to alleviate congestion on hot days.  They can frequently be seen “bearding” on the outside of the hive.  With many days in the 90’s, I’ve already seen this behavior.  What most impressed me was a day when we had a sudden, heavy downpour and the girls on the outside of the hive remained there despite the rain because the colony needed to maintain temperature for future generations within the hive.  Teamwork at it’s finest!

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Bearding is a way for honey bees to decongest the hive.  Less bees allows for more air circulation and less heat inside of the hive where the brood temperature is always diligently monitored and maintained in the 90 degree range, year round.  That means on 100 degree days bees need to fan and cool down their hive and on 40 degree days, they need to cluster and warm the brood.

 

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The rain came down fast and furious on this 90+ degree day, bringing thunder and lightening along with it, flooding ball fields and soaking chicken coops.  Yet this cluster of bees remained true to their cause, risking their own lives for the better good of the colony.   The “gangsta lean” that a fellow beekeeper recently termed the lean of my big colony, is intentional to help with rain and snow run off.  It’s very slight but with this much height, it is now more noticeable.

As the tulip poplar, black locust, and basswood blooms dwindle, honey bees will look to other plant sources for nutrition.  Blackberry is a key nectar source in Maryland and mine are just coming into bloom.  Soon though, they will seek nectar from clovers and other plants in our gardens and landscapes.  My honey bees are fortunate to have good resources on my property and those surrounding it, but elsewhere, honey bees will soon find themselves in need of food sources to sustain them.  To help ‘save the bees,’ consider adding nutritional bee friendly plants to your own landscape that offer more than ornamental beauty, but truly welcome pollinators and support their important efforts.

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Purple Sensation allium attracting honey bee attention during the late days of the spring nectar flow before wildflowers and summer bloomers present their offerings.

 

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White allium just as interesting to my girls

 

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Native wild geraniums form lovely mounds of green growth with long lasting blooms and are good food sources for our pollinators.

As summer ushers in, at times with a roar of hot, humid days, and at others with a cooler, gentler whisper of sunshine and green growth, I’m anxious to taste the honey my girls will share with me.  The vegetables in my garden are anchoring in for the long haul ahead and my landscape is alive with abundant growth and color, not to mention delightful sounds as songbirds, woodpeckers and even hawks serenade us with their delightful chatter and music.  Toads and frogs are croaking into the night air and locusts are beginning to make themselves known again too.  Squirrels, bunnies, chipmunks and catbirds are working against some of my efforts as they steal ripening figs, strawberries and blueberries right out from under my watchful eye (and bird netting), but it’s nature and I’m blessed to be able to share the abundance of my landscape with them, just as our pollinators continue to share their efforts with us.

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The bee is more honored than other animals, not because she labors, but because she labors for others.   

– St. John Chyrsostom

 

Planting resources:

Xerces Society pollinator friendly plant list by area

Honeybeenet forage map by region

USDA native plant list for honey bees (Maryland)

Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat Chesapeake Bay Watershed

 

 

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