Monday, April 22, 2013

The basics: birds and bees or bees on the dole?!

Before there is a nectar flow going in this mid-Atlantic area in the early spring months, the bees are hard-pressed to find enough nectar to eat and store and make into honey.  These early blossoming flowers are more about producing pollen (the male sexual gamete, ie. sperm, of the flower), which the bees place in their pollen sacs and take back to the hive and store for nutrition and development of the brood. So, although they are getting pollen, (if a freeze has not killed the flowers) you must feed them sugar syrup that you make to keep the hive going until the nectar flow is in full force.

In my area of Western Maryland, the pollen sources arrive early and before nectar -first as flowering maples, then crocus and dandelions; then wild yellow mustard; this occurs typically from January’s end through Marches’ beginning; (we were late this year, and so we seem to have adjusted everything by about a month in occurrence).  The stone fruit trees, like plums, cherries, and peaches, as well as pears follow and are flowering now in mid-April; they provide some nectar for the bees, but also pollen.  Crab apple and Hawthorne blossoms will be next to follow.  The apples follow these; and then the Autumn olives after that by April's end; locusts, roses, wild blackberries and raspberries will open in May through June, and finally the summer clover will be in full force from the end of May through most of July.  

This flower parade represents the normal progression of blooms and food resources for my girls in this area.  It all of course totally depends upon the temperature and the rainfall.  A drought and heat wave will inhibit a nectar flow, just as a freeze and severe cold will. 

The definition of nectar is - A sugary fluid secreted by plants, esp. within flowers to encourage pollination by insects and collected by bees to make honey. Nectar is an ecologically important item, the sugar source for honey; nectar secretion increases as the flower is visited by pollinators. After pollination, the nectar is frequently reabsorbed into the plant. The main ingredient of nectar is natural sugar (i.e., sucrose (table sugar), glucose, and fructose).
So, nectar is a sugar-water mixture that the flower makes; the amount of water in the nectar depends upon the blossom.  Different flowers have evolved different-sized nectaries, and nectary / pollen stalk (or anther) arrangements.  Nectaries are the "bars", the places where the bee or bird or moth sticks its mouthparts or beak to sip upon the drink.  Many flowers have evolved to have deep nectaries with large volumes of tasty nectar, and bees, butterflies, moths, or hummingbirds will spend lots of time on these. 

Some flowers have developed “landing pads" (petals) and brilliantly colored flowers and symbols or designs that point to where the nectary is for the animal or insect to hone in to this nectary for a sip.  Certain flower colors attract more than others.  Bees are fond of blues, purples, and similar variations toward the uv (ultra violet) spectrum of light. 

Why would flowers evolve such a display for the bees?  Well,  basically it’s all about sex.  The plant wants to reproduce, the flower is the mating organ for this to happen.  The nectar is a reward for the bee, as it picks up the male flower’s sperm-the pollen on its anthers, and delivers it to another flower’s female part, the stigma (that has the sticky nectar), to trap the grains of pollen. 

Some flowers are wind pollinated, some bird or bat or small mammal/rodent pollinated; but many are bee pollinated.  Some crops are exclusively pollinated by honeybees, for instance the almonds of the San Joaquin Valley in California MUST be pollinated by honeybees!  And, big bucks are involved with commercial beekeepers trucking their bees out to California for this purpose.

A true nectar flow will begin with the apple blossoms appearing here in my area and going through the summer months with the clover blossoms.  The clover will dry up by the end of July and the nectar flow will be over until the fall flowers (goldenrod and asters mostly) begin to blossom in September; again, this is dependent upon rainfall and temperatures; a fall nectar flow may go through November at times.  (But, I do not harvest honey in the fall, as the bees must have at least 60 pounds of stored honey in their hives to get through the winter months in the mid-Atlantic.)

I digress. Back to the spring nectar flow where we now find ourselves...Once the apple flowers are open, feeding your bees sugar water "synthesized nectar" will no longer be needed.  Most beekeepers keep calendars of flowering blooms in and around their beeyard areas, and of course, they try to plant for flowers the bees will visit and use.

The bees will tell you when they are thirsty or not for feeding them.  I put my hivetop feeders on with their floating wooden slats that ride up or down inside with the volume of the sugar syrup.  The bees need these floats to stand on while drinking the sugar water, or else they will drown in their attempt to get a nectar sip.  (Their wings become coated with sugar water and they can’t fly, or they cover their spiracles-paired breathing tubes on either side of their abdomen-and suffocate.)

It will be obvious when the bees are hungry and you should feed.  The minute they get a whiff of the sugar syrup, they line up like little piggies at a trough and start drinking. They shove and displace one another just like little piggies at a trough or at a nursing sow!

Each time you open the hive to check the volume of feed remaining, you will see it diminished if they are hungry, or not, if they are getting enough wild flower nectar from flowers in the yard.  If they are no longer taking the feed, you may (and should) take the feeders off of the hive.  If you do not take the feeders off, you will develop what I call social welfare bees; yes, bees on the dole! 

You need to practice tough love parenting at this time!  Your girls will say, “Why should we leave the hive and work for flower nectar when this pretty good stuff is right here in front of us in the hive?!”  Kick them out!  Or, they will actually become lazy.  Lazy bees are a sad sight, and do nothing to promote the old addage of busy as bees!

You think I jest! One year I had a hive that wanted to just drink sugar syrup.  There was a nectar flow, but they only drank the syrup in the feeder.  I realized, it was time to make them leave the hive and work for a living, as 50 lb bags of sugar at Cosco are rather expensive!  (They are also rather heavy to lift and it takes time to mix the syrup!)  So, I kicked the girls out by removing the feeders; they soon got the message.  Work or else!  This is a commune, not a welfare state!

Why do beekeepers feed their honeybees?
1) To stimulate the queen to lay as many eggs as she can in the spring months.
2) To build up honey reserves for the winter in late summer (August) and early fall months; (a hive must have at least 60 lbs of honey stored to make it through the winter in the mid-Atlantic of the US.)
3) To complete successful overwintering in the late winter / early spring months.

What do beekeepers feed their bees?
Sugar syrup
1:1 sugar to water syrup (in spring)
2:1 sugar to water syrup (in fall)
Fondant a thick solid almost cake icing mixture (winter and early spring)
Pollen substitute patties when pollen is scarce (late winter and early spring)

Never use high fructose corn syrup.  Mix your own sugar syrup.  As I say above, I buy 50 lb bags of granulated sugar at Cosco.  In the checkout line people always ask me if I'm a baker....I tell them, "No, I just have a sweet tooth."  It works, as I shop in West Virginia!
This time of year use 1:1.  (In the late summer and early fall use 2:1 to prep to store feed for the winter months.)  I mix up 1:1 sugar to water syrup.  I add a pinch of cream of tartar to help ease of change from "nectar" to honey, and I also add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar (not white distilled).  The vinegar cuts down on mold growth in the feeders.  Although, when the girls are thirsty and standing at the feeder sides and slurping it all up, it seems vinegar is not really needed.  

At this point, unlike earlier feedings during installation (see previous blog post), I do not add the antibiotic Fumigilin B to the feed syrup.  I see no more signs of dysentery or distress in the hive. Everyone seems pretty happy.  They are in fact busy as bees!

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