For the past two days the bees have been coming in absolutely loaded down with bright yellow willow pollen and grey red maple pollen. I wonder how they can even get airborne, the pollen baskets on their back legs are so encumbered with huge blobs of the stuff. It’s funny to watch them as they arrive on the landing board and waddle into the entrance with their booty.
The worker in this photo graced my shirt with her presence for a few moments before she took off for the hive entrance to deliver her load.
Pollen is as important as nectar for the honeybee family, because the protein and other nutrients it contains feed developing larvae. The honeybee colony must produce as many new bees as possible in order to have workers to gather nectar to make enough honey for next winter. Without pollen — no honey. This is the time of year when, in a strong colony, the population is exploding. ~ Annie Watson
The bees were busy in the warm weather yesterday. The workers came back to the hive looking like they’d spent some time in a bakery — all dusted with very light tan pollen. It could be red maple, or maybe elm — I’m not sure. Red maples bloom around this time. Now, on warm days, the bees can feed their young, and the more food that’s available the more numerous and stronger the colony will be come summer. Nectar and pollen producing plants promote brood rearing and wax production — both important to the “spring buildup” of the colony.
We love these warm days when the sun is shining and the bees are overjoyed to be out after the long winter cooped up in the hive. It’s so live affirming to see them bringing food back to the hive. I was blessed by one bee visiting my hand before she delivered her load. Note the blob of pollen basket on her back leg.
For more about pollen plants, check out this slide show from the Northeast Kansas Beekeepers’ Association.
Starting around March 20 each season, we make the rounds in the scattered patches of snow and check on how our honey bees came through the winter. I look forward to being out on the land, and though the days can be cold and raw, there is a great warmth in the returning of the light and promise of Spring in the air. We delight in seeing the bees that are alive, these hives having made it through our long Northern winter. This is entwined with the sadness of finding that some of the bee hives did not make it and are dead. Often, the bees that have passed on have a box of honey left, that they do not need, and this is moved to the bee hives that are alive, and often light in weight and in need of honey. The hives with insufficient stores would not make it to the days of Spring when the flowers will provide them with enough nectar and pollen to sustain their lives. In transferring the honey from one hive to the next, I feel a renewed relationship with the bees and the help that we give them.
Beehives on a snowy morning and Goat Willow in bloom.
Winter shifts into spring with the Spring Equinox on March 20, and with the change comes contrasts in weather. One day it’s 45 degrees and the pussy willows are blooming; the next morning everything is covered with 6 inches of snow. On warm days the bees are flying, looking for the first pollen to feed the brood that they are already tending. On snowy cold days, there is no sign of live outside the hive. This can be a dangerous time for the bees as they run out of winter food, so we watch closely and add another super of honey to the hive if need be, hoping spring will arrive soon.
Pussy Willow photo credit: David Hawgood, Creative Commons License
Snow photo credit: Ann D. Watson @ 2013
Winter Cluster, Winter Cold
When cold weather comes, honeybees form a tight cluster inside the hive to keep warm. The cluster’s dense outer mantle of bees can approach bird feathers or mammal fur in its ability to insulate. Within, the looser inner core of bees surrounds the queen, and can reach a temperature of 90 degrees! All of this is fueled by the bees’ winter stores of honey.
The prolonged periods of cold we’re experiencing are hard on the bees, for the longer it stays very cold, the harder it is for the bees on the outside of the cluster to stay warm and move around, and the harder it is for the cluster to move as they follow their honey stores. We are grateful for those days of thaw in between the cold spells, where the bees can rotate their duties, warm up, and take a “cleansing” flight.
With another month of winter to go, we hope that there are not too many more prolonged cold spells, and that through Grace, Mother Nature, and their own efforts, they’ll make it through.
You can read more about winter clusters at The Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists
From the cover of an old scrapbook, found at justsomethingimade.com
In the old days in many parts of England and Scotland, it was said that honeybees hummed in their hives exactly at midnight on Christmas eve — some even said they sang a Christmas hymn. This belief also existed in France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany. (See The Sacred Bee: in Ancient Times and Folklore. Hilda M. Ransome. Dover Publications, 2004.) It may have originally been associated with the Winter Solstice.
Perhaps you would like to go out at midnight on either the Solstice — which occurs this year on Friday, December 21, at 6:12 a.m. EST — or, on Christmas Eve… you choose! And put your ear to the hive to see if the bees are singing!
Warm wishes for a sweet holiday season and a Happy New Year.
We’re heading to the bottom of the year now. In the last few months, the bees have worked hard to make enough honey to get through the winter and build up enough numbers to reproduce and survive. For now, the queen has stopped laying. Beekeepers have installed mouse guards, added insulation, and wrapped their hives with protective and heat-absorbing black tarpaper. Now comes the time to hope and trust that colonies will survive until the first pussy willows and maple flowers come out in early spring.
Visit Live from the Hive around December 21 when we will have a special Christmas/Solstice edition of Live From the Hive!
The staghorn sumac (Rhus typhinia or Rhus hirta) flowers that the honeybees pollinated in June have developed into dark, velvety fruit clusters, or drupes. You can gather the drupes to make into a Vitamin C- and flavor-rich drink, or to dry and use next summer for your smoker fuel if you keep bees. Make sure you’re not collecting poison sumac fruits. Identification info at this Ohio State University web site, and a recipe at Healing-from-home-remedies.
You can also leave the fruits for the deer and birds to enjoy all winter, and for visual beauty in the landscape, their burgundy red standing out against the white of winter snows.
At the hive, the bees are still flying, gathering the last bits of pollen and nectar from late-blooming garden flowers and the last few asters, dandelions, or goldenrod.
The honey bees are going all out, searching the goldenrod plants for every last flower that offers another grain of pollen, another drop of nectar, carrying their precious loads of gold back to the hive. The honey they are making now will help them through the long winter. Purple asters are flowering, and these too give nectar for spicy aster honey.
As I watch the bees, am I preparing too? Am I taking into my being the warmth of the sun, the blue jay’s sharp cry, the blades of green, the late-blooming dandelion? Am I storing up these things like the bees store honey, to be brought out like precious jewels during the cold days ahead?
It’s happened to us all: You go away for a few days, or it rains, or you get busy with other things and before you know it that head of broccoli in the garden is flowering. But wait – Did you know that broccoli and other members of its family are favorites of honeybees?
Bees love the flowers from the brassicaceae or cruciferous vegetable family, which includes cauliflower, cabbage, cress, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, radishes, mustard, turnip, horseradish, and much more. It is thought that, as with humans, variety in honeybee diets is crucial to their health. By providing many different kinds of flowers for bees to forage on, you are helping them to be healthier. More information on the brassica family can be found at organicsforall.org. Information about how you can help the bees can be found at the University of Minnesota Bee Lab.
If you’ve accidentally missed a few broccoli heads and they go to flower, the good news is that their nectar and pollen will feed the bees. In turn, the bees will pollinate the flowers, enabling the seeds to develop. Later in the fall you can collect the seeds, and next spring you can plant extra for the pollinators.