Saturday, February 11, 2017

Planting for Bees

Bee on dandelion
It’s time to take advantage of these winter doldrums, especially as we look out at fresh snow (again) in February. While the bees are busy rubbing their wings for heat and (hopefully) tending the new brood that will be spring bees, we can curl up by the fire and dream of warmer days. What better way to do that than with the seed catalogs? We’ve been stock-piling them since Christmas, so time to jump in and start planning our plantings.

Bee on hyacinth 
For us, there are two things at the top of the list to consider – the first is to find plants that feed either the family or the bees, or both. Because we have locust trees, which create an amazing flavor in honey, we want to compliment that taste. Raspberries work well, and we have a lot of them; it’s a good thing because both the bees and the boys love them. We will be planting some lavender this year, adding to what we already have, and I am hoping to add more herbs around the new apiary. Crocuses and hyacinth which bloom in the spring are always good additions (but those are planted in the fall. We have our crocuses planted in the lawn so they come up and are finished before the grass needs mowed). Bee balm (monarda), cosmos, Echinacea, foxgloves, and all blooming trees are a great addition. Asters and zinnia in the fall are also nice, and goldenrod is another important plant here, providing nectar and pollen when most plants are shutting down in the heat of the summer.

Bee on Cherry Blossom
The idea of tilling up some of our field to plant it to clover and wildflowers also has some appeal. It would be a good three-season food source for the bees, and would cut down on our need to mow the field as much, reducing our carbon footprint. We will also be experimenting with cover crops – planting buckwheat on a part of the old pasture to help choke out invasive weeds and to feed the bees – they love buckwheat (but it does make a darker honey). We can leave the cuttings on the field at the end of the season, and that will help improve our soil. We have begun introducing white clover to our lawns. This is primarily to feed our bees – nothing quite like clover honey – but also to help keep the areas green in the hot temperatures when lawn just doesn’t do it without copious amounts of watering, and cuts down the need for mowing.

Bee on Apple Blossoms
This takes us to the second most important consideration; to choose plants that are hardy and that will not require or come with any chemical contamination. Along with this, we need plants that can withstand the hot summers without a lot of water. We have been leaning more toward heirloom seeds, loving the varieties but also the nostalgia of them. We lean toward West Coast Seeds from Canada and Johnny’s Seeds in the US, simply because of the variety and quality – we know what we are getting and that it will be safe for our bees. We want to grow plants that complement each other, creating a symbiotic relationship wherever possible to fight diseases and pests. Sometimes compromises have to be made – marigolds are wonderful for keeping pests away, but don’t make the nicest honey. Fortunately a little marigold goes a long way in protecting the garden, and if there are other sources of pollen available (like raspberries!) the bees will choose those first.

Bee on buckwheat
We would be remiss to not mention the vital role dandelions fill for the bees. In the spring, when there are not a lot of other plants blooming, dandelions are a godsend. They are a wonderful source of pollen and a first source of nectar for the bees, keeping them going in a time when the bees are trying to build hive strength with only a few resources. Please do not spray your dandelions – they are really only determined but misplaced flowers.

If you find you do have to spray your plants, please avoid doing it mid-day when the bees are their busiest. In the mornings, when it is still too cool, or in the evenings, when they are returning home for the day would be a much better time, if you must. This isn’t just about our bees; it’s about all the bees and other pollinators depending on these plants for sustenance.

As an added note from our last blog, we finally have a ‘cleansing flight’ day for our bees! It’s still colder than what it should be for them to venture out, but when nature calls… 

FLOWERS FOR BEES: Calendula, Butterfly Bush, Cleome, Clarkia, Columbine, Cornflower, Cosmos, Forget-me-not, Delphinium, Dianthus, Digitalis, Echinacea, Blanketflower, Hollyhock, Candytuft (Iberis), Linum, Lavatera, Lobelia, Lunara, Lupins, Morning Glory, Nasturtiums, Purple Tansy, Poppies, Scabiosa, Snapdragons, Statice, Strawflowers, Sunflowers, Veronica, Yarrow, Zinnea

HERBS FOR BEES: Bergamot, Borage, Chamomile, Chives, Lavender, Oregano, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Keeping the Hive Alive

The hives in their new apiary. The snow is up to the top
of the benches they sit on (18" high) and the weatherman
is today calling for about another 12" to fall tonight and
tomorrow morning.
As we brace for yet another blast of snow (really, Mother Nature, enough is enough) it might be a good time to think about spring, from a bee’s perspective. We spend a lot of time making sure that our bees have the best preparation possible for winter, but in Canada, that season comes with a lot of variables, so in many ways, it can be a bit of a nail-biter. For us, it is very rare to still have these cold temperatures and snow falling. That is where we’re at right now – wondering if we gave them enough food, wondering if the weight of the hives was high enough to give them good odds of survival, etc. The one thing we do know is that when the temperatures are this cold, we cannot open up the hives to check on them. That blast of cold would definitely hurt them.

February last year, we were able to get into the hives.
In the fall, we closed the screens at the bottom of the hive, to help keep them warm. We treated the hives to make sure there were no mites in them – we want to make the viruses that come in on the mites do not get a chance to impact the brood that will carry the hive through the winter. We have made sure they have food in the hives. They also have stored honey and pollen which will become vital to them once the days start getting longer. That last brood of bees in the fall are ‘winter bees’. During the rest of the year, a worker bee lives about 6 weeks. Winter bees will carry the hive for up to 6 months. They have to be as strong as possible.

The worker bees from one of our hives forcing out a drone
last fall. The drones are much bigger, have much bigger eyes
and have no stinger.
Our bees should have already started laying new brood. They need pollen for protein primarily for the brood, so those stores are already being depleted. In the spring, once we can open the hives, we will be able to give them additional pollen, but right now, they are on their own. In the coldest months, they will be frugal in their use of stores, but once the queen starts laying brood again, the demand rises sharply. Remember that through those winter months, the worker bees keep the hive at a constant temperature (or as close to it as they possibly can) by rubbing their wings, or vibrating them, to create friction. They do this all day, every day, to protect the Queen.

An evicted drone. Notice the size of the eyes. 

Our queens now should be making worker bees. They will not create any drones until they are needed – in a bee’s world, men serve one purpose, and one purpose only; if it is not breeding season, the drones aren’t necessary, and come fall, the worker bees will make sure that every drone is kicked out of the hive. They are not feeding someone who does nothing to keep them all alive.

Making bee boxes... again. 
So, our bees are in their boxes, rubbing their wings, creating friction, eating very little. The brood is starting to be laid, so the queen is doing her thing. They cannot get out of the hive to forage. They also cannot get out of the hive to relieve themselves; there is no indoor plumbing in a bee’s world. On days when it warms up enough, they will leave the hive if for no other reason than to do that which they cannot do inside. Our bees have not had a possible ‘cleaning flight’ day for over three months, and this is definitely a concern to us. As winter drags on, they are thinking about one thing – providing for the hive the minute the temperatures are right. They need to have brood ready to take over, because those winter bees are getting tired. They need to have bees ready to forage, and they need more to take care of brood as the queen keeps producing. It’s all about keeping the hive alive. While some animals hibernate during the winter months, and other (like the wiener dogs) are sleeping in front of a warm fire, our bees are working like crazy in those little boxes.

Of course, they aren’t the only ones working in preparation for spring. We’re once again making bee boxes, making honey supers, putting together frames, and planning what to do with our bees and our honey this year. We’ll keep you posted on that.