January & February:
The bees started to feed the queen in mid-January when the pond
cypress, dandelions, chickweed, and other early bloomers began to give
off pollen. By the time of the first inspection in late January, every colony had fresh eggs and capped brood,
meaning the queens have been hard at work. With the warmth and red leaf
maple blooming nearby, along with some white clover and camelias, it was
time to move all the bees to their warm weather residences.
March: Lots of growth in the population of the individual colonies, and time to make the first splits in the early part of the month. In making a split, beekeepers take brood and bees from a bustling, high population hive, and start a new colony. Adding a new queen gets things kickstarted, or you can let the bees raise their own queen by building a queen cell around a cell with a very young larvae in it and feeding it royal jelly for a longer period than usual for worker bees. Our nuc yard is full, and about two weeks after introducing the new queens, they begin laying. Meanwhile, the nectar flow began during the last week of March. Our spring has begun with redbuds, Carolina jessamine, apples, pond cypress and red leaf maple in full bloom by the beginning of the month, and the bees bring back tremendous amounts of nectar and pollen to start rearing brood and building up their stores. They still need to be offered 1:1 sugar water every day. They are building out, building up their population exponentially and drawing out new frames of wax honeycomb.
The new bee garden beside the pond is coming along. We selected nectar producers with flowers in the favorite colors of the bees: white, yellow, blues, and purples. Herbs, bulbs, tubers, annual and perennial plants will provide blossoms from late winter through the fall. And 2500 blueberry bushes are about to break bud too. Workshops on planning bee gardens are available.
blueberries bloom in late March and early April in plenty of time for June fruit. This is swarm season, so we inspect the colonies every six days to be sure they haven't created
any queen cells. There are a number of techniques people use to avoid
swarming. The basic philosophy is to provide the colony with ample
space to fill with brood and stores long in advance of their realizing
their population is growing exponentially. It takes about 45 days for an
egg to become a laying queen (if everything goes well), so it is best
for beekeepers who seek a strong colony to maintain its queen instead of
watching her fly away with half the bees (which is the biological
imperative, and understandable after all). Lots of blooms
everywhere--remember, avoid using any pesticides if at all possible, and
if you must use them, spray after dusk when the bees are in their hives
or before they emerge at sunrise. Plant now for summer's nectar dearth:
sunflowers are terrific in August.
May and June:
Inspection every 6-7 days over this period kept our bee population
growing as we made artificial swarms as needed. There was a tremendous
bloom of gallberry on the fringes of the longleaf pine forest this year,
and both white and crimson clover flowers are still on the plants. Good local wildflower populations of Bidens and
Carolina tobacco weed, along with ornamental herbs, anise hyssop, and
hollies complemented buckwheat and sunflower plantings some people use
to support foraging. It's time to harvest honey only when your frames
are 90% capped; spin out that uncapped nectar first, clean the
extractor, and then cut off the cappings to harvest your spring and
summer honey. Our demonstration beescaping area is blooming with Cirsium
(thistle), gallberry, blue vervain, blue asters, and blanket flower as
well as all the herbs and exotics. We added a wetland area with
plantings of pickerel weed, sweet flag, cattail, creeping Charlie, and
other small wildflowers beside the pond.
July: Summer's heat intensifies
daily. This is a good time to check your water supply for your bees: is
the water fresh? is it shallow or filled with gravel or marbles so the
bees can drink without drowning? Our clover continues to bloom, along
with garden plants going to seed (parsley, fennel, carrots) and
currently flowering (basil, beans, strawberries, sunflowers). In the
beescape, yarrow, sage, lavender, and oh my the mint, anise hyssop,
Russian sage, and Shasta daisies are taking off. The day lilies and
American swamp lilies are still putting out flowers as well. Our main
summer honey harvest is on hand, for fully capped frames only, and the
bees will have plenty of time to build up their fall supplies. It is
time to consider making any splits to overwinter now; the end of the
month is the latest you should plan for that. Inventory your equipment,
and get any orders in to be sure you have enough bottoms, hive bodies,
and lids before you begin. Decide whether you will order a new queen or
let them make their own in the new split and allow plenty of time to get
a queen from a supplier if you go that route. Plant for your early fall
garden, and include plenty of flowers for the pollinators (see below
for more information on specific suggestions).
heat intensifies daily, and the bees are frequently outside bearding on
the 'front porch' to stay cool. It is time to feed your colonies
because little nectar is available until the goldenrod begins to bloom.
Choose cane sugar at a 1:1 ratio by weight with water for best results.
(If the sugar wrapper does not say Cane Sugar, it is made from beets,
and is less digestible.) Remember, once you start feeding, the supers
will include sugar water and should not be harvested for honey. We have a
small but important goldenrod and aster bloom starting towards the end
of the month or early September. The heavy rains provide reassurance
that they will be good producers this year.
Keep an eye on your hives and make sure to check for mites. You can
slide a piece of white posterboard lightly coated with vaseline onto
the base if you don't have a special mite board. Remove after 24 hours
and count the number of mites present. Repeat after one week to ensure
full representation of the mite life cycle. Prepare to treat them when
the temperature is right for your particular technique. Essential oils
have not been shown to be sufficient; there is some response, but the
long term effects of mite load deplete the hive's ability to survive.
Follow the instructions to the letter for your mite treatments, and
check the mite count again after the first and second treatments (where
relevant). Write it all down in your bee records and consider the
overall impact on hive health as you review them for each hive. Remember
to help the bees by killing adult hive beetles and reducing their
ability to pupate near the hives. Wood mulch, shade, and dampness are a
hive beetle larva's best friends when it comes time to burrow into the
soil to pupate.
Plant for early spring blooming nectar producers.
an eye on your hives and watch for robbing behaviors such as bees
wrestling, bees that are the 'wrong color' pushing their way in to the
hive through the main entrance or seeking gaps in its construction. If a
hive is being robbed, you can wet a sheet and drape it over the entire
hive, touching the ground. The bees who belong there will find their
way in, but the others will give up. All the bees are frantically
seeking nectar sources and will take advantage of a wide entrance if it
is available. You may want to reduce the entrance to your hives as the
night time temperatures drop to the lower 70s.
Inspect midday when temperatures are warmest, and try to choose
warm sunny days. Do not open the hive when the temperature is 55 degrees
or below, as it will chill the brood so important to the colony's
ability to survive till spring. When you do inspect, be sure to deal
with any problems like small hive beetles or mites as soon as you find
them. The colony needs to spend its energy preparing for winter, not
fighting pests. Full sun on your hive for as many hours a day as
possible will help.
If there is a rainy spell, the queen will probably stop laying, but
she will start up again when the sun returns to build up the colony
population for winter. Once the nights dip into the 50s, prepare to see
the expulsion of any remaining drones. Very few are left in the hives,
but once it is cold enough to let the colony know winter is around the
corner, the drones will be thrown out, left on the ground or trying to
get back into the hive. Since they have to be fed by the working bees
from the stored nectar, pollen and honey, they are only allowed in the
hive when a new queen may have to be mated. The queen will lay more
unfertilized eggs in the spring once the maples bloom usually, and they
will become next year's drones. If you do not have a queen, you will
need to get one from a breeder or combine hives. There usually is not
time, and there are not drones, for raising your own from queen cells at
this time of year.
The wildflowers of fall draw bees and other pollinators to their mostly
golden and purple blooms. Goldenrod abundantly grows along the forest
and road margins, and in our demonstration bee garden, and the honeybees
are busy bringing its nectar back home. They also love the swamp
sunflowers native to this area; you'll find them in damp spots and along
ditches and the edges of ponds and wetlands. Purple lobelia, Ageratum,
asters, and ironweed also are in bloom, and the bees find them
irresistible. Mints are blooming again, along with basil, fennel,
yarrow, and dill in the garden, and early sasanquas are showing up in
their pink and white. We also have a confused apple tree that is
blooming and fruiting at the same time some of its leaves are turning.
Horsemint, Bidens, and Creeping Charlie, as well as the moisture-loving
bog button attract visitors intent on getting every drop of nectar and
grain of pollen possible packed away for winter in the hive.
The bees are feasting on goldenrod nectar, which can give a hive a
certain smell of locker room shoes, and also pollen and nectar from the
many other wildflowers we are so fortunate to enjoy in the lowcountry.
If you smell fermentation, that is different, and indicates a high
population of small hive beetle larvae. You will need to deal with that
problem immediately, usually by shaking your bees into a new hive and
frames. Try hard to avoid this problem by taking care of beetles as soon
as you see more than half a dozen at a time.
Plant now for spring wildflowers, setting out large clumps of the
same type so it is easy for bees to find them, and begin to clean,
repair, and properly store your woodenware.
: We checked on the colonies in their winter boxes to be sure they are all set for the coming months. Our first night in the 30s means that most of the drones got pushed out of the hives by the workers. Drones are the bigger bees with very large eyes. The male bees are important to the colony's survival in the spring and summer, but the colony doesn't store enough food to take the drones through the winter. The queens have stopped laying eggs till February, honey and pollen from the fall nectar flow of goldenrod and purple asters are stored, and now the field bees are looking for something sweet to take back to the hives all over the farm. This is a time when the bees will make a tight cluster around the queen inside the hive and dream of summer flowers while they wait for spring. Here at the farm, we are planning our bee garden, planting other forage plants for the bees, and cleaning up all the wooden hive equipment before the spring build out that begins in late February and early March here in the Lowcountry.
Planting for honeybees, native bees and pollinators
People want to know how to help support declining bee populations. Here are three of the most basic things you can do:
- Accept nature's imperfections and avoid pesticides whenever possible. Even 'natural' pesticides like pyrethrins kill pollinators. Hand-pick pests and experiment with organic practices. For example, you can use a 10% solution of dishwashing soap, a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, and 4 cups of water in a spray bottle to protect leaves, stems, and flowers and fruits. Native plants are often most resistant to the area's pests.
- Choose blue, white, yellow and purple flowering plants to create clumps of plants that will make it easy for the bees to visit many flowers at one time, spreading pollen from the same species within the clump. A variety of flower shapes and colors that bloom at different times also attracts many pollinators.
- The most difficult time of year for our foragers is August, when many plants have already flowered or are getting ready to flower in the fall. Selecting late summer blooming varieties will make your garden an oasis for bees.
A few favorites
Trees and shrubs: Gallberry, beautyberry, chickasaw (and other) plums, saw palmetto, magnolia, tulip poplar, black (swamp) tupelo, buckeye, yaupon, chokecherry, holly, blueberries, bottle brush
Annuals: Horsemint (Monarda punctata), goldenrod, purple asters, mexican sunflower, hyssop, anise hyssop, globe thistle, swamp sunflower, vervain, blazingstar, borage, ironweed, blanketflower, Liatris, cosmos, oregano, marjoram, thyme, Devil's bit (Scabiosa), lavender, Rudbeckia, Joe Pye weed, butterfly weed (Asclepius tuberosa), plantain, dandelion, frostweed, Bidens (beggars tick and others)
Perennials: Rosemary, cotoneaster, white swan or purple coneflower, dewberry, blackberry, Wisteria, passionflower
Remember to choose blue, purple, white, yellow or pink flowering plants and to try to go native. The guides below have blooming dates and specific suggestions too.
The websites here provide a range of information about planting for pollinators that live in the Lowcountry (outer Coastal Plain). Our farm is in Zone 8b; most plants on this list do well in Zone 8a, 8b, and 9.