Like guests around a table, bees feast on honey from some broken comb.
“Thanksgiving, Bees, and Pioneer Beekeepers” by Annie Watson
This month, our thoughts turn to the upcoming feast of Thanksgiving and our gratitude for delicious raw honey both for our table and to create our wonderful products.
In addition to providing raw honey for Caledonia Spirits, honey bees are critical to human existence because they pollinate 80% of our food. The health of the bees is a bellwether for the health of our human species. We’ve all heard and seen that they’re in trouble, and the scientific evidence is mounting that chemicals are threatening them on a large scale.
More and more beekeepers are choosing to stop using chemicals and raise bees treatment-free who are stronger than those raised in the conventional industrial manner. Two pioneers are Kirk Webster and Sam Comfort. Kirk http://www.kirkwebster.com/ works here in Vermont and gives workshops in the summer. Sam http://anarchyapiaries.org/hivetools/ works in the Hudson Valley of New York. I encourage you to visit their web sites for some fascinating information. There is another way, and it’s heartening to see it demonstrated.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving we give thanks to the bees for all that they give us.
A top bar beehive, sheltered by a Sugar Maple tree.
“October Observations” by Annie Watson
October marks the end of the nectar and pollen season. At September’s end, bees were still bringing in pollen from asters and lingering goldenrod, as well as some garden flowers — but soon those will be gone. The beekeeper has taken off the last of the honey and in October will make the rounds to insulate and wrap hives for winter. On a warm day last week I observed a number of dead yellow jacket wasps (not honey bees) outside of the beehive. They no doubt had tried to get in, perhaps to feast on brood or rob honey. Guard bees stung the intruders to dispatch them.
It’s getting colder at night, and we finally got some much-needed rain. A local beekeeper reported to me that the bees did pretty well despite the dry conditions. They made a lot of honey in July. I will soon pick up a bucket of untreated honey from him for my own winter stores.
We are so grateful for the bees. Without them we would not have enough food ourselves, for they are our major pollinators. May they have enough honey and dry hives to survive the coming winter.
Honey bees work Japanese Knotweed on a September afternoon.
“Japanese Knotweed” by Annie Watson
We tend to impart some kind of moral value to plants, based on our own perspective: when we like them we say they are “good”, and when we don’t, we say they are “bad”. Invasive plants are considered “bad” because they can have harmful effects on native plant habitat. In fact, many invasive plants have beneficial qualities, many of which are medicinal. They are just plants, carried to a new place by humans.
Japanese Knotweed (fallopia Japonica) is an invasive which greatly benefits the honey bees. In our area it blooms in late summer, when goldenrod is the only other abundant plant giving nectar and pollen for the bees. On a recent walk along the New Haven River in Addison County, I saw blooming knotweed covered with honey bees. At this time of year, when the bees are as busy as — well, bees — making honey for winter, this plant can make a big difference to a colony. The dark honey made from these flowers is said to taste somewhat like buckwheat honey. (In fact, it is in the same family — Polygonaceae — as buckwheat.) Knotweed root is also used by herbalists to treat Lyme disease.
For more on medicinal properties of Knotweed, watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uf3N0biKrjQ
A honey bee on a Globe Thistle flower head.
“Echinops” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio
After the June rains, dry July weather supported the blooming of many flowers. The bees have been making honey. During August, garden plants as well as wild mustard and burdock become important food for bees until the goldenrod bloom of late summer.
Echinops, or globe thistle, is a wonderful perennial for your garden. The foliage and flowers provide color and texture, it’s easy to grow, and many pollinators love it. My globe thistle flower heads are covered with bees, wasps, and others during late July and August. The spiny-edged leaves are not as prickly as field thistles and their texture contrasts nicely with the perfectly round blue-violet flower heads. The plant stands 3-4 feet tall, doesn’t need a lot of special care, and provides food for honey bees and many other pollinators.
A honey bee gathers nectar from a mint flower.
“The Mints” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio
Honey bees love the flowers of the mint family (Lamiaceae). Spearmint, catmint, lemon balm, catnip… the list goes on. Did you know that basil is in the mint family? So are lavender, oregano, and rosemary. In our area, the mints bloom in June and July.
Pollinators are threatened all over the world. You can help them out by planting bee-friendly plants in your garden. Plant plenty of herbs so that you can leave some to flower instead of harvesting them all.
For more information about what you can plant for bees and other pollinators, go to Honey Bee Suite.
A honey bee visits a Staghorn Sumac flower.
“Staghorn sumac bloom” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio
June brings the blooming of the staghorn sumac. Its beautiful flowers are a major food source for honey bees. I’ve seen them covered with bees on a warm June afternoon.
Largest of the North American sumacs at 15-25 feet tall, Staghorn sumac is named after the” velvet” on young branches similar to that covering the antlers of a male (stag) deer. In early summer, male and female flower cones on separate plants are covered with many tiny flowers. After pollination the flowers turn into clusters of “drupes” — small red hairy fruits that are eaten by deer and birds all winter. The foliage turns red and orange in the fall and a hedge of sumacs is really beautiful at that time of year.
By allowing sumac to grow in your hedgerows and property edges, you provide important food for honey bees, deer, and birds.
For more about this plant go to the Missouri Botanical Garden web site.
Beehives in a field of dandelions, near Rochester, Vermont
“Dandelions” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio
In May the dandelions bloom, providing nectar and pollen to the growing numbers of bees in strong colonies. The bees are out in numbers on the warm days, gathering food for their growing families.
Dandelions are amazing plants with many medicinal properties. Their masses of blooms all over New England fields and lawns help to feed our bees. Thankfully, the homeowners’ practice of trying to eradicate dandelions from their lawns is on the wane. These hardy plants, though not native to North America — having been brought here by European settlers — are full of vitamins, health-promoting compounds and antioxidants. Dandelion is best known for its support of liver function. And, of course, it is a major food for honey bees at a critical time in the life cycle of the colony when it’s essential to gather the maximum amount of food.
Her baskets loaded with pollen, a bee rests on her way back to the hive.
“First pollen and nectar” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio
Spring has arrived! We are so grateful for sunshine and warmer days. April is a big month for honeybees. The newly available pollen and nectar support their building of a strong, well-populated colony that can make lots of honey to — yes — get them through the next winter. Although April can still be cold in the north country, there are also many warm days where the bees are out searching for pollen. During April the willows and red maples bloom, giving the bees their first pollen and nectar of the season.
The fuzz on the pussy willows, the yellow of the willow trees, and the pink aura of the maple buds are a welcome indication that the bees have food once again.
“Until the Next Bloom” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio
It was a difficult winter for the bees. At my house in the Champlain Valley, only one out of three colonies remains alive. We gave them a super of honey, and hope that they will make it through.
My beekeeper friend Bob writes: “Out of 16 colonies, 9 are still alive. Some, like the one at Annie’s, look quite strong, but others appear that they’ll have to struggle to make the 8 weeks to dandelion season.” There are a few blooms before dandelions — the various willows being the main one — but we don’t know if that will be enough for the bees.
My brother Peter Watson, passed from this life a week ago. He, too, had been a home beekeeper at times. I remember a huge wild hive high up in the big tree outside Peter’s workshop near Rochester, New York. Peter was always in touch with nature and always kept an eye on where there were honey bees.
The bees teach us that life must continue, and those left behind must valiantly strive to keep family and hearth together until the next bloom.
“Bees in the cold” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio
A honey bee on Queen Anne’s Lace. Note the pollen on her back legs.
We are concerned about the bees in this long bout of cold weather. At my house in central Vermont, the thermometer hasn’t gone above 32 degrees since some time in December. Did you know that honey bees do not eliminate their wastes inside the hive? To do this, they must take a “cleansing flight”, which helps to keep the brood nest healthy. The problem is, bees generally can’t fly well unless the air gets up to nearly 50 degrees. This presents a problem in long stretches of cold such as we have in the Northeast at this time of year. On a sunny day the bees will attempt a short cleansing flight. But once they leave the hive, if the air is too cold they cannot keep their wing muscles warm enough to continue flying, and many do not make it back to the hive.
Today as I skied past the hives, I saw dead bees in the snow near the entrance. Nature is harsh. We wait and hope for a break in the weather.
The Queen Anne’s Lace flower above looks like snow, but reminds us of hot summer days. It is rare to see a honey bee on this plant, since it is not one usually frequented by them.