A honey bee on an aster flower.
“Asters” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio
On a recent sunny afternoon walk, I spotted fall-blooming aster flowers alive with pollinators such as wasps, solitary bees, butterflies, and honey bees, all loading up on pollen and nectar.
Aster flowers come in many colors and sizes, from the rich violet-colored New England Aster to the not-so-showy Bushy Aster, a 1 to 3-foot tall leafy plant that can be covered with small white flowers with yellow centers. While not spectacular to look at, this plant provides food and cover for many creatures. Wild turkeys, goldfinches, chipmunks, and white-footed mice, to name a few, eat the seeds, while the leaves are eaten by deer and rabbits. The flower depends on insects for pollination and in turn provides them with food. The plant’s leafy foliage also provides shelter for butterflies, spiders, voles and mice, frogs and toads, birds, and many insects. Amazing plants!
A worker bee sips nectar from a goldenrod flower.
“Goldenrod” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio
As I walk in the garden, a pungent essence wafts across the back yard. This is goldenrod honey, being made in the beehives. September is the month of the goldenrod bloom, characterized by a spicy fragrance coming from the flowers and a heavy, rich, yeasty aroma emanating from the beehives as the bees transform goldenrod nectar into their winter stores of honey. Truly, without the goldenrod they could not make it through the winter. Goldenrod honey is a warm yellow color, darker than clover or mixed wildflower honey, rich with an unforgettable spicy flavor. We always save a special jar to open in January.
A honey bee collects pollen from a burdock flower.
“Burdock, an essential plant” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio
The crickets are singing nonstop…We’ll be heading to Addison County Field Days, Vermont’s big agricultural fair, this week…Blackberries are ripe. Most days are still very warm, but there’s a chill in the air of an evening. Summer is winding down.
For honey bees, the next six weeks are crucial, for they must make enough honey to see the colony through next winter. That’s why burdock, now flowering, is so important. In Vermont in August, it’s the bees’ major food source.
If you allow a hedgerow of burdock and other “weeds” such as jewelweed and mustard to grow along borders of your property, you are providing food not only for honey bees but for all manner of pollinators. If the burdock is growing where you don’t want it to (like at the edge of my vegetable garden!), you can watch it and cut it down just after the flowers have begun to dry up but before the seeds have fully formed. That way you can still guard against those pesky burs while allowing the bees a food critical to their survival. It’s really important that we maintain burdock in Vermont! For more about burdock, which is also a very medicinal plant, click here.
“The Making of a Queen” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio
In this picture you see a “queen cup” — an elongated cell, looking a bit like an ice cream cone, that contains a queen bee larva. The bees are making a new queen, which they do when the queen dies, is failing, or has left the hive with a swarm. A fertilized egg develops into a queen when the workers feed a fertilized egg with a rich food made of honey, pollen, and enzymes, called Royal Jelly. Because she will be a very large bee, she needs a larger cell to grow in.
The queen bee is born with all of the eggs she’ll ever lay in her extra-long abdomen. Once she has mated she deposits one tiny white egg in each cell of honey comb at the rate of up to 2,000 eggs a day at the peak of the spring buildup. But this egg laying is tied to the sun, seasons, and length of the day. The summer solstice having passed on June 21, the queen has begun to slow down in preparation for winter.
The slightly convex cells at the top of the picture are capped honey cells, while the reddish brown, slightly puffy cells further down contain larvae. The uncapped yellow cells contain pollen. Note the “courtier” bees who are tending the queen cell.
“Blackberry Bloom” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio
One of my favorite events of the year is the blossoming of the wild blackberries (rubus alligheniensis). You can tell where the plants are from the rich spicy, woody fragrance that the unopened flower buds give off in April and May, heralding the coming of the flowers. It’s a scent I look forward to every spring.
A blackberry patch in bloom becomes a sea of white that looks like summer snow. Then come the bees to gather nectar and pollen for their young, and in so doing, spread the
pollen. The flowers and bees are a promise of the luscious fruit that will ripen about a
month after pollination.
Did you know that berries must be pollinated by insects in order to make fruit? If the bees
and other pollinators don’t fertilize the flowers, the berries will not develop or will develop
unevenly. For more about pollination go to the Science with me! web site.
Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio
“The Gift of the Dandelion” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio
May is such an important and busy month for the honey bees. The colony is rearing brood, and many plants are flowering, providing food for the growing population. Ground ivy and dandelions are everywhere. Dandelions are such an important food source for bees. Many people consider them pest plants and spend hours trying to dig them out or pour toxic chemicals on the lawn to kill them. But the bees really need the dandelion’s nectar and pollen to support the colony. Besides, what can be more cheerful than a bright yellow dandelion flower with a bee on it?
“First Pollen” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio
As soon as the weather warms up in April (we hope!) the bees will begin to collect pollen from the early-blooming plants. In Vermont, the first ones are pussy willow, goat willow, and red maple. Keep a lookout for that red “glow” on the hillsides in April. It’s easily seen on a rainy day. Get up close to see the colorful red maple flower and maybe even a honey bee on it. Oddly, red maple pollen is a rather drab grey-brown in color. Willow pollen is pale yellow.
“Feast Your Eyes” by Annie Watson
As March begins, the cold continues unabated. Let’s feast our eyes on something other than more snow and ice. This photo shows a worker honey bee on a sumac flower. Sumac blooms in June and is a major food source for Vermont’s honey bees. This picture is a reminder of the coming of spring. The amber blob on the bee’s back leg is pollen.
In March, the beekeeper checks on the hives and feed the colony honey or some form of sugar if necessary — this is the month when colonies can starve. Believe it or not, if the temperatures warm up, we will begin to see the bees venturing out for the first pussy willow and alder pollen of later this month, at least in southern Vermont. The spring equinox arrives on March 20th, when the day and night are of equal length. Happy Spring!
“Weather and Pollen Stores, an Intricate Dance” by Annie Watson
Even as we face the coldest days of the winter, the queen begins laying eggs for the young that will replace those lost over the winter. If her family collected a lot of pollen in the fall and has abundant honey stored, she will start earlier, and as the weather warms, there will be more new bees and the colony will go into spring stronger. In colonies with a lack of pollen, the queen delays her laying until fresh pollen is available in early spring. Those colonies emerge from winter with reduced populations.
The gift of the queen’s laying, along with her timing, are in an intricate dance with the weather and pollen stores, all part of the miracle of the bees’ connection with nature and communication with each other to work together for the survival of the colony.
“Winter’s Depth” by Annie Watson
In the deepest part of the winter, there’s no sign of life from the hives. But the bees inside are very much alive. Rather than hibernating, they are clustered together in a ball, surrounding and protecting the queen. It is remarkable that they can survive these cold temperatures.
The hives, with their covering of ice and snow, become part of the beauty of the winter landscape and when we pass them on our way out to snowshoe or ski in the fields, they stand as a promise of continuing life and eventual spring.