Honey bee nutrition is vital for our honey bees to start out healthy and to be able to tolerate pests, toxins, and diseases throughout their lifetime. They will be killed by an overdose of any of those things, but good nutrition gives them a fighting chance to survive what they encounter in their lives.
I became especially interested in late fall pollen sources when I became aware of Fat Bees. To have any chance of overwintering a colony, the bees raised in late fall need to be fed lots of protein and be disease-free (Varroa control) to store the protein in their bodies. The Fat Bees use some of the stored protein to survive the winter months and some to convert into royal jelly to feed the larvae when the queen starts laying in late winter. Without these protein reserves they’re doomed. Pollen patties can help, but they’re not the “real deal” and will not produce an optimum bee.
My initial thought was to find “bee plants” with the highest levels of crude protein and plant those. However, researchers have found that honey bees don’t always go to the most protein-rich pollen sources when they have a choice, and will visit plants with significantly lower amounts of protein in the pollen. They concluded that the bees are getting something else that they need, and the researchers don’t yet know what that is.....yet. What became obvious is that variety is essential.
I’m fortunate to be surrounded by “wasteland”. It’s low, wet country so there’s very little agriculture and a lot of wildflowers. Add to that a couple of hundred acres of DNR land with prairie restorations and my home bees are in Eden. But yet, according to my phenology record, there’s not much blooming in mid-July or after early September.
To “fill-in” those dearth periods, my focus this season is to plant a bunch of Russian Sage for a summer bloom, and Autumn Joy Sedum for a late fall bloom. Both are excellent honey bee plants and the Sedum is high in protein, just when the bees need it for the Fat Bees. (I’m excited about Russian Sage because a friend in the Ripon area has them and she told me they literally vibrate with honey bees when they’re in bloom, and ECWBA member Mike Rohde gave me a couple of Autumn Joy Sedum last year and the bees were all over it when it was in bloom starting in late September.)
The list of honey bee plants became too extensive to list so I’m going to list a couple of excellent resources, in case anyone is wondering what would be good to plant this spring. When buying plants, beware of hybrids and of chemically treated plants. Some hybrids do not produce pollen or nectar, and we know the dangers of chemicals. “Heritage” plants and organic seeds are probably the best bet to avoid chemicals and genetic alterations.
A couple of things though. Herbs (all of them) are great pollen and nectar sources. Giant (aka: Anise) Hyssop came up repeatedly as a great honey bee plant. And we’ve probably all heard of Beebalm, Cosmos, Lavender and the Asters as excellent bee plants. For those considering trees; maples, willows, basswood, sourwood and black locust are all great for honey bees.
100 Plants To Feed The Bees by the Xerces Society.
The Xerces Society is about protecting invertebrates and not strictly honey bees. This book has a nice key by each plant which shows which pollinators visit which plants based on 40 years of Society observations and study. This book lists plants by common name and can be purchased from Xerces. http://www.xerces.org/
Garden Plants for Honey Bees by Peter Lindtner.
Mr. Lindtner spent his life as a horticulturist and beekeeper and this book lists hundreds of plants categorized by bloom season. This book lists plants by genus (that Latin stuff) so there’s a bit of difficulty locating plants that we know by common name. (Google the plant you’re looking for to find the genus name.) It has 1 – 5 stars by each plant to indicate the typical level of pollen and nectar.
There’s a variety of other books on the subject (Winnefox has several) but these two struck me as the best of those that I read. They make very good reference books for your home library.
Last week while looking for native plants I came across The Wild Ones website and they are currently accepting orders for 1 to 2-year-old plants, but orders are due by March 20! The plants cost $5.00 each, or $4.50 each if ordered by the flat (12 of the same plant). There’s some very good honey bee plants among the offerings. For those interested: http://foxvalleyarea.wildones.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2014/06/WOFVA17_PlantSaleOrderForm_113016.pdf
Native plants are a good thing, but introduced plants can be too. What we don’t want to plant are invasive plants that get out of control and choke out the natives. Purple Loosestrife is a good example. Honey bees love it, but it’s choking out native plants and that’s a death knell for the native pollinators that depend on local fauna. Be careful in your choices.
Speaking of natives, there was a native honeybee in North America 14,000,000 years ago. Apis nearctica. Who knows what happened and if any of their genetics survive in Apis meliffera, but now we know that at one time there were native North American honeybees.
Our next meeting is April 8 at the Ripon Public Library, 9:30 a.m., Silver Creek Room. We’ll be talking about hive reversals, techniques for changing out brood comb, and Jack will be bringing a swarm lure and will talk to us about swarm catching. It's cold today, but the season is close and we need to prepare for it now.
See you then,
EDITORS NOTE: Two other good sources of native prairie plants are:
-Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wi.
-Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota