There sure is a lot to learn. About how the world works, about how honey bees work in the world, about how I might work in the world. That last one is a little intimidating; I haven’t got much figured out at all. But one thing that helps is to keep trying. Add a little here, leave a little something go, let something fail, try something new.
This year at the home yard I brought six colonies through the winter, twice as many as last year. And I tried a new strategy: instead of stressing and straining my little colonies to grow and multiply in the chill of March, I waited. When the week came when I wanted to make early spring splits, I waited. And I waited until I had so many bees that I could borrow a bunch from each colony and they would never notice the difference. Then I raised a batch of queens, set them out to mate, and sold a couple nucleus (starter) colonies to a friend. And did not set my bees back in the least.
Waiting is difficult for me. But this year, my colonies were bigger, healthier, and happier. And they made plenty of honey for the bear-in-flip-flops.
Also this year, the county bee school assigned a couple new beekeepers to me as mentees. It is a very valuable program; there is only so much you can learn from reading books and attending classes. Even YouTube can’t provide a full-immersion, tactile learning experience with surround sound. Perhaps I am strange, but I always wonder how it will feel to do the thing that I’m learning about. And really, what better place to learn beekeeping than in someone else’s apiary, with their bees, under their supervision? And although I could imagine someone else’s bee yard being more … orderly … than mine, I do believe that my mentees got what they needed: each of them got to do themselves nearly every task that I do during the summer, that they will need to do next summer in their own yards.
So I’m proud of that. I’m learning, and they’re learning with me.
This is the honey from my home yard. May it fuel your learning: adding on, cutting back, allowing to fail, trying new. And Love Me Some Honey!
Common Name: Carolina False Dandelion, Desert Chicory Botanical Name:Pyrrhopappus carolinianus Plant Type: Biennial herb Typical Bloom Period: May – October Nectar Usefulness: medium Pollen Usefulness: high
While exploring an abandoned farmstead as a kid I found a cast-iron wall decoration. It had a picture of a barn and windmill with a poem, all in capital letters: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise.” Blooming in August, as throughout the summer in Mecklenburg County, is Pyrrhopappus carolinianus, commonly called “Carolina false dandelion” or “desert chicory”. Carolina false dandelion is matinal: it is a “morning person”.
false dandelion looks a bit like a common dandelion (Taraxacum
and also a bit like a hairy cat’s
It can be distinguished by its stem: solid and leaved. A common
dandelion has a hollow stem, while cats-ear and false dandelion have
solid stems. A specimen of Pyrrhopappus
has some leaves on the budding stem; cat’s
ear and common dandelion have none. Jan Haldeman has written a fine
comparison of the three flowers for the
Winter 2012 Journal
of the South Carolina Native Plant Society,
and the Society website makes all of the back issues of the Journal
available: a fantastic resource.
flowers face the rising sun, and they bloom first thing in the
morning. A composite aster (Astericae
they offer plenty of pollen of good quality. It is
first-come-first-serve, though, and our honey bees have some
competition from a matinal native bee.
is a type of sweat bee — genus Lasioglossum
— which has a mutualistic association with Carolina false
dandelion: the bee forages almost exclusively on Pyrrhopappus
and the flower reinforces the oligolecty
by opening early — sometimes as early as 5:30.
tear open the anthers and remove the pollen before it is available to
our bees and provide cross-pollination for the flower. Most foraging
is over by mid-morning, and the flower will be closed by noon.
is biennial, and can be found along roadsides and meadows and
disturbed areas. It has a taproot which was eaten by Kiowa people. It
spreads seed by catching the wind in pappus parasols, like a common
dandelion. Our honey bees can be encouraged in matinal patterns by
facing their hives toward the rising sun to allow the early light
through the entrance – so to become more “healthy
and wealthy and wise” and forage on Carolina false dandelion.
The following resources were most helpful:
H. (1961). Biological Observations on Hemihalictus lustrans, with a
Description of the Larva (Hymenoptera: Halictidae). Journal
of the Kansas Entomological Society,34(3),
134-141. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25083219
admire this: when a person wants to support a cause, but they don’t
have the ability to engage it directly, so they offer what they do
have in partnership, as a small piece of the puzzle, and find joy in
it. Here is a person who wants to “Save the Bees,” but he
doesn’t have the interest or ability to directly engage in an
activity like beekeeping. But he has a yard, and would like to host
bees and put up a sign and set an example for his neighbors. And he
knows his package-delivery-person keeps honey bees. So he reaches out
and makes a new connection.
This year, the connection yielded up a couple boxes full of light amber, fruity flavored honey in the middle of spring. It is exceptionally clear. Over a lipid, like butter on toast or full-fat yogurt, the flavor simply sparkles like all that urban sunshine.
At this particular location, I am fortunate to keep bees without supplemental feeding of sugar syrup. In Charlotte, our summers have long hot months with next-to-no sources for nectar forage. It is hard to believe with all the green growth, but from July to October can be lean months for a honey bee colony. So most local beekeepers incorporate sugar syrup into their apiary management, just so they don’t stress their bees unnecessarily. Sugar syrup is not unhealthy for bees, but it is not very healthy either — imagine going four months a year with only foods from the snacks/chips aisle — you wouldn’t starve but you’d need a detox later. But the bees in this person’s yard have not been fed any sugar, and they don’t seem to be overstressed. So I am happy for his desire to help the bees and my bees are happy for his neighbors who desire to let their clovers and other weeds grow.
you let your dandelions, your clovers, and all the “little
purple flowers” grow up and bloom in your yard, all the bees around
you — native bees too! — will be as happy and healthy as my honey
bees with no sugar. And you will Love Me Some Honey!
got a call from Charlie on Tuesday, would you like to come tomorrow
to help with a cut-out?
never done such a thing in my life. But I have the day off. I’ve
said to him before that I’m curious about what he does. So, the
answer is “sure, just tell me where and when and what to bring.”
After some clarifications, we met, and rode together to some friend-of-a-friend’s farm. The bees were in the back of the barn, a two-story board-and-batten sided structure with an open garage on one end and a closed storage on the end with the bees. We didn’t go inside; it is relatively easy to take off board and batten. It’s a typical barn, with “stuff” stashed along every edge — but in this case some of the stuff was useful: they had components for a scaffold and some boards and plywood. So Charlie build us a platform about four feet high, up to the bottom of the tall skinny beehive. Meanwhile, I got the smoker lit, and put on my long shirt and got my veil out of his truck.
climbed up on the platform and started to give the bees some smoke.
Up close, I could see that there were multiple entrances at different
heights and behind different battens. Judging by the buildup of
propolis along some of the edges of the battens, and by the apparent
age of some of the combs, Charlie guesses that colony of bees had
been there for five years. They were a very vigorous and active
colony, and Charlie wanted me to put on my veil. He had just set his
bee-vac up on the platform and I didn’t
quite understand his urgency about my veil until the crowbar came
I said that board and batten is easy to disassemble. That is true.
But it requires some banging and some prying and some shaking and
pulling. And honey bees are very sensitive to vibration. When the
walls of their cavity start to have bangs and creaks from prying,
they think a big old bear is after their brood, and they get very
defensive. In this case, it is two smaller bears, and we really are
on the side of the bees, but they don’t
necessarily understand that. So Charlie told me with a little more
urgency, “Might want to put on that veil now.”
so we deconstructed their hive, board by board, comb by comb. We used
his vacuum to suck as many bees as we could into a standard hive body
with some empty frames in it. Each comb we cut from its board,
holding it to keep it from falling and slicing and scraping its
attachment to the wood, vacuum the bees into the box, and put the
comb gently into a bucket. Old comb got sorted to be melted down,
honey comb got sorted to be crushed and strained out, and comb with
brood in it was stacked with extra care to cause as little damage as
by piece we worked our way to the end of the bees’
nest. It was perhaps the largest colony I’ve ever seen. Healthy.
Vigorous. Organized and intentional. To cut out a comb, I would reach
in behind it with my left hand so to cut it with my right. Well there
are lots of bees in there, even after the vacuum, and so I would have
to be very touch-sensitive and gentle with my grabbing because I
can’t see where the bees are; I can only feel them and try not to
pinch one. They were gentle bees, but I still got stung more this day
than in the two years previous, almost entirely on the fingers. I
don’t react or swell up nearly so much as I used to, but sometimes
when they get close to a nerve ending it sure does hurt!
Which is all to say just this: here is a very special batch of honey, not ever to be duplicated! These bees were feral, completely unmanaged for five-ish years, foraging in a largely undeveloped environment. The honey I got from them is all there will be from them, except that Charlie will reestablish them in a new location under direct management. But this chapter is over. Celebrate it! These bees were rescued from a situation where they were becoming pests, without undue harm or rough treatment, and certainly no insecticides. We hope to breed new queens from this stock and continue the line, but that’s another story … until then, Love Me Some Honey!
Common Name: White basswood Botanical Name:Tilia heterophylla Plant Type: Deciduous tree Typical Bloom Period: June-July Nectar Usefulness: high Pollen Usefulness: medium
A great tree stands at the Harris Welcome Center of Queens University, facing Radcliffe Avenue at Queens Road. It is 67.5 inches in diameter at chest height and its canopy spread is 99 feet. It is an American basswood, Tilia americana.
of the Tilia
trees growing in Mecklenburg County are instead Tilia
their leaves are light colored and downy on the undersides. They are
sometimes called “bee
tree,” because while they bloom for a relatively short time, they
shed pollen densely and offer nectar profusely so that they attract
an abundance of attention from our bees.
basswood trees bloom for about two weeks, displaying clusters of 4 to
40 flowers with prominent bracts. The flowers are “perfect”—
they have both female and male parts on the same flower, but are
generally not self-compatible and need pollinators to initiate
fruiting. Most flowers open in the mid-afternoon or evening. Sepals,
petals and stamens gradually fold back, and the anthers shed pollen.
are protandrous: the anthers mature first and shed pollen before the
stigmas mature to receive it, about 24 hours after the flower first
opens. On the second day that a tree blooms, 90% of flowers will have
nectar present, sometimes in droplets big enough to see and taste.
Peak sugar concentration in the nectar is 28%, and it is a favorite
of both diurnal and nocturnal pollinators.
trees and their European relatives, the lindens and limes (Tilia
spp.), are a favorite of scientists as well as bees. The pollen shed
is so dense that electronic air quality monitors can be used to
gather precise data about bloom time. Several published studies have
monitored the timing of Tilia
pollen shed over time and location. Trees bloom as much as two weeks
earlier with just a few degrees increase in annual temperature. They
also bloom earlier if they are surrounded by impervious surfaces,
such as in a densely paved city.
visit to the Queens University basswood at the time of this writing
will find that it has already bloomed, and the tiny nuts are just
beginning to take shape. This particular tree has been featured in a
recent book by Margaret Barker Booth, Treasure
in the City,
and the Queen’s
Crown project, www.queenscrown.org,
and is certainly worthy of recognition.
species is light yellow with a sharp flavor. Pollen pellets are
yellow to light orange.
of the information in this article came from these studies:
The Pollination Biology of Tilia G. J. Anderson. American Journal of Botany Vol. 63, No. 9 (Oct., 1976), pp. 1203-1212. Published by: Botanical Society of America, Inc. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2441737
Common Name: Garden Onion, Field Garlic, etc. Botanical Name: Allium cepa L., A. lineale Plant Type: Perennial bulb Typical Bloom Period: June-August Nectar Usefulness: excellent Pollen Usefulness: very good
national restaurant chain offered a free “Bloomin’
Onion” on Monday. Of course, I heard about it on Wednesday after.
Had it been a blooming onion in the proper sense, Allium
in bloom, the reward would still be available. Onions and garlics,
are blooming this month in Mecklenburg county, and our honey bees
genus includes several hundred species of plants including garlics,
leeks, onions, and chives. Most are perennial with true bulbs — a
complete plant is inside the bulb, and reproduce vegetatively by
dividing their bulbs underground. Further vegetative spread is
accomplished by species such as A.
which develop bulbils at the top of the stalk with the flowers. These
are not seeds; they are clones which will drop around the mother
plant and grow into a clump.
also reproduce sexually. They grow a stalk with an inflorescence
enclosed in a veined sheath called a spathe. The spathe opens to
expose a head of florets arrayed in a globe — this bloom pattern is
called an umbel (think “umbrella”).
Each floret is a perfect flower with prominent sepals. Pollinated
flowers produce seeds in capsules.
combination of bulb division, releasing bulbils, and producing seeds
is a successful combination for Allium
lineale — field
garlic — shows up and
forms clonal clumps in
pastures, lawns and unkempt fields. It is listed as a noxious weed in
several states — “noxious”
being a legal designation to authorize intentional
control/eradication efforts against an invasive weed. Dairy farmers
do not like field garlic, as it taints the flavor of the milk.
Beekeepers don’t mind quite as much.
bees love Allium
species because the nectar contains a high concentration of sugars.
Many surveys find onion and garlic nectar to be at least around 50%
sugar (1:1 sugar to water), and as much as 75% sugar (3:1). Allium
florets secrete a high volume of nectar, and most species continue
secretion for as long as 144 hours, until the tepals and stamens
wilt. So a foraging bee which finds a patch of onions will likely
dance excitedly upon return to the hive, and that rich nectar will be
available for several days. In Garden
Plants for Honey Bees,
Peter Lindtner rates garden onions as an excellent nectar source and
very good pollen source; he observes pollen pellets to be
your eye out for “Bloomin’
Onion” and also for blooming onions. They
really are a sweet treat, not to be missed.
Most of the information in the article was gathered from the following sources:Garden Plants for Honey Bees by Peter Lindtner; Publisher: Kalamazoo : Wicwas Press, 2014.
“Kick Me” is what we would write on the paper with tape, and a gentle pat on the back would mark the victim in such a way that s/he couldn’t see or remove it. You might think of the word “note” and then of the word “nototribic”. The Salvia genus of flowers are nototribic, and they are blooming in Mecklenburg County.
Worldwide, there are about 900 species of the genus Salvia. In Mecklenburg County, our most common native species of salvia is S. lyrata, “lyre-leaf sage” or “cancer weed”. They have purple-veined leaves in a rosette at the base which are irregularly lobed, and shaped a bit like a lyre. A square stem stands 1-2 feet tall, covered in sticky hairs and irregular whorls of flowers. The flowers are bilabial — they have an upper lip and a lower lip. They range in color from very pale lavender to rich blue. Wild S. lyrata is most often found along the edges of disturbances.
Cultivated varieties of Salvia are very popular in southern flower gardens. Favorites include “black and blue” S. guarantica, originally from South America, and “hot lips” S. microphylla, originally from Mexico. These varieties bloom later in the year than natives, and they serve to feed our bees through the summer months.
Salvia flowers need bees to transfer pollen grains from the anthers to the stigmas. But every grain that the bees collect and take away is then unavailable for the reproduction of the flower. To combat the loss, our flowers slap a “note” of pollen onto the back of the bee in such a way that she cannot work it around to her corbiculae in mid-flight, so ensuring that she will carry it to the next flower. As the bee enters the floor of the flower to reach the nectary, she presses her head against a lever-shaped stamen and the other four stamens are pushed down to deposit pollen on her back, where she cannot reach it. Because of this staminal lever mechanism, salvia has been the subject of considerable study.
If you observe your cultivated salvia, hoping to see the lever in action, you might observe carpenter bees, Xylocopa virginica, working the tops of the flowers, on the outside. They are biting through the petals to reach the nectar within, bypassing the staminal lever mechanism entirely. Our honey bees will often use the holes that the carpenter bees have bitten to gather nectar only.
blooms through April and May in Mecklenburg County. In Garden
Plants for Honey Bees,
Peter Lindtner rates most Salvia
species as good sources of both pollen and nectar; he includes a fine
photograph of a bee biting through the top of a flower.
The August 2007 issue of Annals of Botany (Volume 100, Issue 2) is devoted to the morphology of salvia, and would be a good place to start more intensive research.
fences make good neighbors” sings the proverb, and while Robert
Frost may beg difference, an urban or suburban beekeeper would
certainly agree. In Charlotte, it is as easy to grow a fence as to
build one, and one of the favorite screen and hedge plants is Prunus
Cherry Laurel, sometimes called the skip laurel or English laurel. A
shade-tolerant, drought-tolerant evergreen, various cultivars can be
pruned to a low hedge and some can grow as high as forty feet. A
stroll through some neighborhoods in April finds one nearly
surrounded by cherry laurel in various stages of bloom.
Common Name: English laurel, skip laurel, cherry laurel
Botanical Name:Prunus laurocerasus L.
Plant Type: Evergreen shrub or tree
Typical Bloom Period: March-April
Nectar Usefulness: lower
Pollen Usefulness: low
is native to the regions surrounding the Black Sea. It grows large,
thick, shiny leaves alternating on stems to form a dense thicket when
pruned. An abundance of white flowers grow in clusters on a vertical
stalk (raceme). Individual flowers have five petals and an abundance
of stamens; the flowers are perfect and self-fertile — they do not
require a pollinator to fruit. The fruits are clusters of drupes —
fleshy outside and a hard shell covering a seed inside, a stonefruit
— which start green and ripen through red to nearly black. Birds
distribute the seeds to propagate the plant; it also spreads by
roots from stems where they touch the ground.
native cousin, Prunus
looks nearly the same; it forms a less dense hedge and left alone
will grow into a small tree. It blooms earlier in the year than the
industrial research on Prunus
is mostly focused upon the layers of waxy outer coating on the leaves
and upon the antioxidant food value of the fruits. Some
cultivars of Prunus
are developed to serve a market demand for their cherries in
southeastern Europe. Do not eat very bitter fruits as part of your
own exploration, however.
Leaves, twigs and bark of the cherry laurel smell of almond when
crushed; this indicates the presence of hydrogen cyanide, a poison.
Know your cultivar and be very cautious with this plant.
bees respond to cherry laurel with mixed reviews. In more urban
locations, the sheer abundance of the plant makes it valuable as a
forage source. In Peter Lindtner’s
Plants for Honey Bees
(Wicwas 2014), he rates
low as a pollen source, and lower as a nectar source. So when
something better is available (like
the bees are likely working there instead. Lindtner observes pollen
pellets of cherry laurel to be light yellow to green.