April Showers Bring May Flowers

And the nectar flow!  The Maryland nectar flow relies upon tulip poplar, black locust and blackberry, all beginning to bloom as my scaled hive proves with steady increases of five to seven pounds each day last week.  As we revel in warm weather, watching our busy girls returning to the hives with full bellies of nectar and fat pollen pants, it’s time to think about…the fall.  While there’s an abundance of blooms outside this month, have you considered what your bees will eat after you harvest honey and the supplemental plants are spent?  We can take a lesson from the bees and plan now for what’s to come.

My bees and I are fortunate enough to have old tulip poplar trees growing in the woods next to the hives, providing both food in the spring and then shade on hot summer days.  They reach almost 70 feet in height so I cannot see if they are in bloom or not.  I know when they are blooming though because my bees exit the hives, orient and head virtually straight up to the nectar bounty in those blossoms.  The other way I know they are blooming is when storms knock off blossoms.  Rich in nectar and a primary nectar source for Maryland honey bees, the ants quickly find these sweet rewards as well.


Black locust tree in bloom, clusters of nectar rich blooms ready for the taking.


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My honey bees eating from the nectar bounty of my thornless blackberry bushes planted on other side of their hives.  It’s amazing how many blackberries we harvest from these bushes with bees located next to them.  The bushes also provide snacks and refuge for free ranging chickens.


The birds and the bees:  my hens like to find treats by the bee hives.  I split my large hive early May while food sources and bee volume are abundant.  Capped queen cups are awaiting the development of a new queen in the large hive and the old queen is laying well with lots of capped brood to build up their volume in the smaller hive.  Despite the demands of new queen rearing, the large hive is doing well at the beginning of the nectar flow, steadily picking up seven to ten pounds a day pre my Broodminder hive scale.

As the planting bug takes you around your property and you seek to fill gaps (or grab a spade and dig up a new spot altogether), consider adding some plants that will serve pollinators well in late summer.  Some of my favorites are New England aster, goldenrod, and Joe Pye weed, native plants that provide a lot of bang for the pollinating buck.  They are rich, late food sources that thrive in our climate, especially as summer lingers and the heat and humidity wage war on other plants.  They also spread so an initial investment can yield a robust pollinator bed in years to come.

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Fireworks goldenrod and wood aster compliment one another well with colors that attract bees and other pollinators as well as support since they both grow tall.

New England asters grow quite tall, often requiring staking or placement in the back of the planting bed.  While other plants headline the show early on, these plants will spend the summer leafing out and gradually growing taller.  You’ll appreciate them on a September day when you visit them in time to watch the pollinators relishing their fall blooms.  Combined with fireworks goldenrod, a more appealing Solidago than the roadside goldenrod but one that also grows tall with gentle draping limbs, you will have a nice purple and yellow combination that attracts honey bees as well as their kin in pollination.

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New England aster are a big fall hit in my garden.  See this girls pollen pouch filling up?


Fireworks goldenrod feeding fall bees.


You’ll need to really get up close to see the bees at work on Joe Pye Weed because they often blend in so well with the mounds of pale blooms, allowing colorful butterflies feasting at this site to steal the show.  Rest assured that honey bees appreciate Joe Pye Weed, especially when the mountain mint they coveted finishes blooming and they can move on to this treat.


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I know bees are here too because the butterflies have found the nectar.



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These girls cannot easily be seen on the Joe Pye Weed blooms so you need to get up close.


Many fall bloomers can be sown from seed directly now that the risk of frost is passing us.  Choose a good seed supplier and follow package instructions to be rewarded with a fall bonanza for pollinators.


Moulin Rouge sunflower (Botanical Interests seeds)


Sunflowers are pollen powerhouses for bees.  Last summer, I witnessed a honey bee hauling a bumble bee almost twice her size off a coveted sunflower in my backyard!  Next time you look at the dark disc of a sunflower head, note the thousands of tiny, individual blossoms that make up what will later be a disc of sunflower seeds for you or your birds to enjoy.  Each one of those tiny blossoms requires pollinator attention and the bees find themselves coated in pollen upon completion.  As a crop, sunflowers rely on bees for pollination so it’s a mutually beneficial relationship, one that in turn serves much wildlife.   Having sunflowers available in late summer is a way to offer fresh pollen for those all-important fall bees and an ample food source.  Sow periodically to ensure a steady stream.


Honey bees working a patch of sunflowers planted close to our home in September of 2016.



I watched this honey bee remove the bumble bee from a sunflower she claimed in our garden last summer.



Detail of sunflower head shows the intricate work involved in pollinating sunflowers, turning each bloom into a seed for consumption while feeding the bees- a win/win situation.


Mexican sunflower is a fan favorite here.  These grow quite tall and each stem boasts large, orange blossoms with a yellow bullseye for pollinators.  I like to combine these with zinnias and cosmos that tend to carry on well into September.  Newly emerged monarchs are also searching for nectar in late summer before journeying south.  Most milkweeds are spent by then, having played their role in rearing the young, so the butterflies flock to nectar rich plants too, making these seeded plants worth your while as they serve all pollinators well.  Cosmos readily reseed as the summer goes on, providing new blooms late into September.  Keep in mind that you can easily save seeds from these plants for next year.


Mexican sunflower bloom 9/29/17



Monarchs still need food before journeying south.  Benary’s Giant zinnias are still producing on 10/11/17.  The dried seed heads of some Mexican sunflowers can be seen in the background.



Cosmos reseed throughout the summer, providing food late into the season.  Photo 10/11/17.


I grow a fair amount of salvia, both purple and white varieties.  These plants are covered with bees mid-summer.  The trick with salvia is to cut it back and let it regrow for a second pop later that will continue to feed your bees.


Garlic chives are a sight to behold in late summer, filled with pollinators, but they spread so choose your site carefully.  The pollen pouches on this honey bee are chocked full, a much appreciated fall food source.


Sedums are easy to grow in part because they handle dry conditions well.  Autumn Joy sedum is another fan favorite here, blooming alongside my garlic chives in September.  While sedums are tame, garlic chives will spread like mad so consider your location.  The girls like sedums so much (or maybe, they are just in such need of fall food sources), that they line up before the blooms are actually open for business!  When the rush of hot pink finally presents, all pollinators are welcome to the table and it’s a joy to watch them work together so amiably.


These honey bees are working Autumn Joy sedum barely open for business.



Honey bee working open blooms on Autumn Joy sedum.



Planting for bees is planting for all pollinators.




A little planning now can set you up for a feast for your eyes and a smorgasbord for your bees come fall.   While you’re at it, consider designating a patch of your yard specifically for pollinators.  Pollinator patches don’t require much attention as they are less structured than our formal flower beds but boy, do they ever offer rich food sources for pollinators!  They are feast for our eyes and a joy to watch.  In fact, I frequently see motorists stop by my patch to get a closer look.   Happy planting, friends!


“Foraging bees are conservative, visiting the nearest, most profitable of several plant sources.”  – Dewey Caron



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