March is here and it’s probably the most difficult month for bees in the north. The survivor queens are laying eggs and the nurse bees need pollen to produce royal jelly to feed the brood, and worker bees need honey (or sugar) for energy to generate heat to keep the broodnest at around 95°F. If they’re short of either, they’re in trouble. And, of course, there’s the mite load. Lots of die-outs occur in March.
The foragers will be out searching for pollen, nectar and water when it’s warm enough to be out and about, and not raining. Bees need water to dilute honey and to dissolve sugar in order to consume both. During winter they use the moisture that builds up in the hive (frost) from respiration, and now they’re using the snow melt. After the snow melt dries up they’ll search for open water within their range. (During the last warm spell there were about a hundred drowned bees in my chicken waterer one day. I wasn’t expecting that. I’m trying to remember to keep the shallow heated bird bath with gently sloping sides filled.)
There won’t be natural pollen and nectar available until the maples and willows bud out, but on warm days the bees are in the bird feeders and chicken coop which has a lot of “billed out” grain on the floor. Apparently they’re finding something among the seeds and grains that they need. They’re finding what they can to stay alive and increase their numbers.
Vigilance is the key now, and I almost blew it this past weekend. The weekend before they all had plenty of sugar and pollen patties, some totally untouched, so I thought “why bother”? Then I decided that I had better at least have a look and the first hive I opened had totally bare top boards where sugar discs and a pollen patty had been. Another hive was in the same situation. The difference a week can make! Out of seven hives only one had enough provisions that I didn’t add anything, and that one had gotten a double dose the weekend before. I still have pollen patties in the freezer and I plan to make more sugar discs tonight.
I don’t use smoke at this time of year because I don’t want to add unnecessary stress to the colonies. I do wear my bee jacket and gloves because a few bees usually come out to greet me, but for the most part they stay on the sugar and pollen patties. With my hive setups I just have to tip the winter cover up on one side to take a look and then close it. I get the sugar and patties ready and tip it open, slip them in, and close it again. The cover isn’t open more than 7 or 8 seconds, and usually less than five. I try to not chill the brood.
Witch hazel, the first natural pollen source to blossom in my area, has already come and gone and the bees worked it during the last warm spell. Checking my phenology records the pussy willows (which are a very good spring pollen source and abundant in my area) opened around March 21 in 2015, and in 2016 they opened around April 11. The red twig dogwoods budded out at about the same time. I recorded that maples and box elder trees budded out in mid-April, so natural pollen and nectar is still about a month out, depending on the weather.
This past weekend I removed the wind baffles that I had placed where the sticky boards go under the screened bottom boards. I figure the extreme cold with strong winds is behind us and more ventilation will be good. I looked through the hive debris on the baffles and didn’t see any mites, which means that either I did a really good job of mite control in fall, or they’re clinging to the bees. I’ll let the colonies gain some strength before I do the first oxalic acid treatment.
This March offers a lot of activity for ECWBA members. March 18th is the seminar in Wausau that some of us will be attending; the 25th is Sue Dompke’s Russian honey bee presentation in Fond du Lac that we’re hosting ((5) seats are still available); and the 30th is a honey bee and beekeeping presentation for adults at the Oshkosh Public Library that several ECWBA members will be presenting.
I’m still researching honey bee plants as I intend to supplement the natural fauna in my area with plantings that will bloom from early spring until late fall. I thought it would be a quick research project; find the best honey bee plants for my USDA Zone, organize them by bloom time, done. But, like usual, I got sucked in. I have about two inches of print outs, bought two books and checked out a half dozen more from the Winnefox system. It became a rather involved study.
The research took me back 100 million years so it shouldn’t be a wonder why this is taking me awhile. The first 60 million years plants didn’t flower, flowering started 40 million years ago. There were slug-like creatures at that time that ate the plants and got covered with pollen from the prehistoric pollen bearing plants. Wasps hunted and ate the slugs but didn’t care for the pollen, then over time bees evolved from the carnivorous wasps preferring a vegetarian diet. Symbiotic relationships between plants and pollinators evolved and different species developed to serve each other. They still do. So not all flowers attract all pollinators, and the honey bee is no exception. They each have their partners. And some plants are very specific as to which pollinators they will allow into their nectary and have developed some mighty clever devices to exclude all others.
For now though, I’m just hoping to help the bees make it to April when their “partners” begin to bloom. Sugar, pollen patties and water is all I can offer and I hope it’s enough. I have some thoughts on supplemental plantings, but since my thoughts have changed about a half dozen times, I’ll give it a bit more time. Less than 40 million years though.
Our next meeting is April 8th at the Ripon Public Library at 9:30 a.m., Silver Creek Room. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone there and to sharing in March’s activities with those who will be joining in.