Live From the Hive: May 2015

Dandelions and beehives

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.


Live from the hive: April 2015

Honey bee with pollen on shirt sleeve

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.

Live from the hive: March 2015

“Until the Next Bloom” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio

BeehiveIt 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.

Live from the hive: February 2015

“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.

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.

Live from the hive: January 2015

Bee on black cohosh flower

Snowballs in summer: a honey bee gathers pollen from a Black cohosh flower

“Winter Miracles” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio

It’s a miracle that honeybees can survive the long cold northern winter. They do this by clustering in a warmth-preserving ball around their one and only queen, upon whom the whole colony depends to provide the eggs for the next generation. They detach their wings from their flight muscles and vibrate those muscles to generate heat; they take turns being at the outside of the cluster where it’s colder.

Miraculous too, that around this time, in the deepest and coldest part of the winter here in the northeast, the workers, knowing that the days are getting longer and spring will come, begin to feed the queen with stored pollen and honey. She responds by beginning to lay eggs.

All of this is in preparation to build up the colony to strong numbers who, over the coming summer, can gather lots of pollen and nectar to prepare for the next winter! And so the cycle continues. Despite all that we’ve learned, the ways of the bees are still mysterious and marvelous.

Live from the Hive: December 2014

Beehives covered with snow

Beehives after a snowstorm, Thistle Hill Apiary


“Winter Solstice,” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio

The cold and snow have arrived in the north country. Beekeepers have wrapped and insulated their hives to help the bees stay warm through the next few months.

This is such a sweet season. The holidays give us an opportunity to celebrate life, get outside and enjoy the snowfalls, sit by a fire with friends and family, and enjoy food and drink alive with honey from the bees’ diligent work throughout the spring, summer, and fall. The honey and spirits produced at Caledonia Spirits carry in their flavor subtle reminders of the flowers the bees foraged on last summer.

On December 21 at 6:03 p.m. Eastern Time, Winter Solstice arrives and the days begin to lengthen. Since before recorded history, people have acknowledged and celebrated the return of the light on this, the longest night of the year. Our modern celebrations are descendants of ancient ceremonies marking the darkness of the Solstice and the promise of light to come.

May you celebrate with honey, warmth, community, and fun at this special time.

Live From the Hive: November 2014

Honey in jars

Honey Harvest, Thistle Hill Apiary

“Honey, the Magical Food” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio

Imagine a food which has an incomparable rich sweet flavor, never spoils, and contains proteins, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. That’s honey.

Honey is truly a magical substance. For thousands of years it was the only sweetener known to man. It’s mentioned in many ancient texts, from the Bible, to the Quran, to Hindu scriptures. It’s deeply embedded in the folklore of many cultures. Zeus, king of the Greek gods, was raised on honey. It stays fresh, too: thousands-of-years-old honey was found in Egyptian tombs, ready to eat.

Raw honey offers us amino acids, enzymes, vitamins B and C, a bouquet of nourishing minerals, and antioxidants. Its simple sugars, glucose and fructose, are more easily digested, and its glycemic index lower, than cane sugar. Honey has amazing healing properties. In the case of burns, honey heals faster and more completely than silver sulfadiazine, the standard treatment. And did you know that bacteria cannot live in honey?

The best thing about honey is that it tastes good. Depending on what flowers the bees have foraged on, different honeys treat us to subtle yet distinctive changes in flavor; but all are sweet and delicious! Raw honey has better flavor and a higher nutritional value than honey that’s been heated to keep it liquid. Heating honey causes the loss of hundreds of beneficial components.

The honey that goes into Caledonia Spirits Barr Hill gin is 100% raw. Fresh honey direct from the hive is truly “food for the gods”, and we are blessed to be able to partake.

Live From the Hive: October 2014

honey bee on aster

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!

Live from the Hive: September 2014

Honey bee on goldenrod flower

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.

Live from the Hive: August 2014

Honey bee on burdock flower

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.