We watched our girls visit early bloomers like winter aconite, crocus, and hellebores, grateful for these food sources while we wait for the warmer temperatures needed to wake up more pollen and nectar-rich plants. April is now upon us with promises of rising temperatures, sunny skies and rain to help in the cause. These warmer days with greening vegetation and extended daylight hours are quite enticing to honey bees as they continue their spring build up.
April is also an exciting time for beekeepers, as we are once again afforded time in our hives, observing, supporting and anticipating needs like good bee stewards. The commonality between bees and beekeepers this time of year is our eager anticipation of the nectar flow, and it’s about to begin!
Historically, our nectar flow in Carroll County, Maryland begins mid-April, lasting several weeks into May. Weather always plays a role in the flow, improving the bloom or squelching it too soon. Some of the most critical nectar sources come to us in the form of trees. With so much vegetation leafing out and growing, colors pleasing to our eyes and to those of honey bees, there seems to be an abundance of choice for our girls. Industrious honeybees focus on the most important food sources that allow them to store up honeycomb cells fast and furious, primarily nectar from tulip poplar and black locust here, followed by blackberries and clovers, sumac and basswood rounding out the top forage species for our area per NASA.
Blooming dandelions will tip us off that the flow is here. While dandelions serve as a good indicator of the beginning of the flow, bear in mind that many plants bloom outside of the typical range because of their location. I’ve seen dandelions bloom as early as February on the side of our church where they get a lot of sun and are well protected, serving this patch of dandelions much like a microclimate. They’re just outliers. We look for the blooms on a more consistent basis to indicate the beginning of the flow and they will soon be here.
Dandelions and clovers are easy to spot in our yards and within the areas we travel. Tulip Poplar and Black Locust trees are not as easy to spot in bloom because not every yard has them and they are such large trees. I am fortunate enough to have many old tulip poplars in the adjoining woods by my hives but at 70 feet tall, seeing their blooms is not practical. I have been monitoring their buds and watching them fatten up, something easy to see from the ground below, but it will become harder to see those blooms open as leaves fill in. Long before the wind or rain knock down big tulip poplar blossoms, my bees will exit their hives, orient and head virtually straight up to them. That’s how I will know that the tulip poplar is in bloom.
Black Locust trees easily reach 50 feet in height, but their blooms are easier to identify from the ground because of the large clusters of eye-catching, fragrant, white blooms, reaching five inches in length, draping across the trees. As a member of the legume family, the blooms resemble sweet pea flowers. On a walk last April, I saw one in bloom long before I was close enough to inspect it because of this phenomenon, and the fact that the tree was filled with buzzing life also investigating the blooms.
Many nurseries stock bee friendly trees for spring planting such as tulip poplar, red maple, Eastern redbud, serviceberry, white fringetree, and American linden that supplement key nectar sources. Visit the Honey Bee Net site maintained by NASA to see the list of key forage sources for honey bees for your area (https://honeybeenet.gsfc.nasa.gov/Honeybees/ForageRegion.php?StReg=MD_11).
Spring planting is upon us. Since clovers and dandelions are freebies, adding one of the aforementioned trees would be a lovely way to support future pollinators, paying it forward a bit as trees can take years to brandish blooms. Well-sited trees will establish roots, reach for the sky and provide for the future. As beekeepers we can all get around that kind of altruism. Let the nectar flow friends!