Today it drizzled off and on all day. I put on my raincoat and trundled up into the bee yard. Inside the open-walled bee gazebo, I busied myself putting boxes away, sweeping dead bees out the door and listening to the tappety sound of drops falling on the greenhouse roof. I found a few spider webs under the warre hive so I got out the yellow brush to sweep them away. Years ago the bees told me they hate “that nasty yellow brush” so I re-assigned it for spider work. I busied myself making the room neat.
No bees were going in and out so I thought to get the stethoscope out and listen to them. I pulled the drawer open and was surprised to find a sleepy cluster of paper wasps. They rolled their drowsy heads to see who just pulled back the blanket. I barely woke them and managed to get the scope out without a fuss. I knew they’d go right back to sleep as soon as I closed the drawer. Trust me, paper wasps are good natured, dear little beings, and I’ve grown quite fond of them.
Though it was rainy, I spent a good hour watching the entrance boards of a few hives. I always see something worth watching and yes indeed, I saw another interesting thing today.
There was no action at the front door. I watch anyway because, well, that’s what I do. I like to watch bees. A second-year hive had again built a propolis scrim in their entrance, dividing the opening into five different doorways, all eminently defensible. After 20 more minutes of me tinkering around, the rain stopped. And then, big surprise, a FLURRY of bees suddenly whizzed in from Lord-knows-where, landed in clumps on the entrance and dashed inside.
Hee-haw! When it started raining a half hour earlier, those foragers were too far out in the field to make it back. A single drop of rain on a bee’s back is enough to splooch her down in the wet grass, unable to fly again until dry. No bee wants to meet her end that way. Each found a dry-ish place to hunker under till the rain stopped.
But once the rain stopped, each little forager made a mad dash flight for home, full speed ahead. They dropped out of the sky in rapid clusters onto the entrance, rushing in before the next dark cloud found them far a-field. They landed 5-6 a second for a few minutes, scooting in with golden pollen on their thighs. How tuned in to the weather they are, waiting and watching, knowing it will turn soon and then blasting home the moment the weather broke.
They were foraging on autumn flowers. Each of the photos below is a bee flower that’s in bloom on our farm at the end of September. A few sunny days ago I counted 26 kinds blooming and took these pix. It’s a dreamy time when bees are foraging on autumn flowers. That’s all their interested in. No need to feed sugar, and they have no desire to rob each other. Ours are also getting nectar from ripe green grapes on our arbor and from the mushy pears under the pear trees. Until I kept bees, I didn’t know they ate fruit, but they do.
Every year I plant more sunflowers. This year we put in an acre of them. While some flowers bloom for a few days, sunflowers bloom for weeks. Look closely at the center and you’ll see that it is made of hundreds of single florets. Sunflower florets open from the outside to the center, a few new florets blossoming each day, adding a few inches to the curve. Bees on sunflowers walk a labyrinthian spiral as they gather the nectar and pollen.
Living in the pacific northwest, our mild winters and rainy weather reward us with a flourish of early spring flowers, bazillions of them that bloom through to early summer. July is when our drought season begins and, though most folks think it rains all the time here, we can go a hundred days without rain in July through October.
That kind of weather puts the kibosh on the abundant bloom and we’re pretty spare from midsummer on. So I direct all my flower planting efforts to what will flower from late summer through fall, when bloom is sparse.
In late summer bees struggle. It’s hot and dry, and once the flow has played itself out, we go into dearth. Dearth is stressful. The weather is warm enough to forage, but there’s not enough out there for everyone. Some colonies take it upon themselves to start casing other hives, testing front doors to see if the guard bees are weak and the front door is penetrable. If it is, they’ll let their home hive know and come out in force to break through the weak hive’s entrance and the pillaging begins.
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While nobody enjoys seeing a honeybee hive decimated by other honeybees, this is Nature’s way. A strong hive will repel invaders, but a weak hive can’t hold down the fort. It succumbs and loses all the honey they collected through spring and summer. While it sounds ruthless, robbing adds to the larder of a stronger colony, improving the more robust hive’s chance of surviving winter. At the same time, it clears the gene pool of the small and ineffective lightweight colony. The strong survive.
I don’t like to see any hive go down the tubes, but the longer I keep bees, the more I’ve learned to defer to what Nature has in mind. In the past I fed small hives all winter. I don’t do that anymore. In my bee yard, bees survive on what they gather and I rarely feed. I make exceptions for bee trees who’ve fallen to the lumberjack’s chain saw and I will feed in an emergency like that, but for the average hive, no.
This has been a slow lesson. In the beginning I didn’t want to see any hive lose out. I’m treatment-free (I don’t apply chemicals or even organic medicines), and I’ve always been clear about that, but I never looked at feeding as an issue. If a hive was light, I pitched in and fed back honeycomb (never sugar in any form).
I did that for a decade. Some years I fed back all the honey I’d collected. Because I fed the small hives, most of my hives made it. Never felt bad about it for a minute either.
Then I had an insight about my role. I realized I wasn’t meant to be a colony’s forager who delivered food (honey) to them. Bees need FLOWERS. If I am keeping bees, my responsibility is to work with the plants to provide more flowers for bees to forage on. Aha! I’m not supposed to be a bee feeder, I’m meant to be a gardener!
Sugar was never meant to be food for bees. The pH is wrong for their digestive systems. Sugar doesn’t supply significant nutritional value, and it lacks the bacteria that enable the bee’s gut to process properly. Studies show that bees fed sugar tend to be weaker and have a propensity for nosema. Of course they’ll eat it — as would you if you were starving and someone offered you a candy bar.
Don’t imagine for a second that the bees are somehow making and storing real honey from the sugar you’re feeding them. They are processing and storing sugar into the cells, but the sweet treat is not true bee food. Bees that go through winter and early spring living on sugar aren’t as healthy as bees who’ve been eating what Nature feeds them. If you put out a dish of sugar water when abundant nectar-y flowers are in bloom, they will go to the flowers every time. Sugar gets eaten when forage slows down and there’s little left to eat. Studies show that bees who eat from a wide variety of flower sources are indeed healthier than bees who have limited choices. If we truly want them to be their healthiest, we’ll put more effort into providing the flower buffets they most need.
So, fellow gardeners, that’s our task. Plant for the bloom in times of dearth. Keep sugar off their menu. And plant as wide a variety of flowers as you can, so the bees have lots of choices.
Speaking With Bees
If you’ve been following for a while, you know I speak with bees. Yep, I do. And I listen because they’re mighty good teachers.
Now you can listen to the book, “Song of Increase.” Robin Wise and I recorded the audiobook this spring and Sounds True just published it. This means you can listen to the entire book on any audio-digital media, like your iPhone or Android or through Audible.com. Whoopee!
Robin is my dear friend. Her bees have the most beautiful watering stations, filled with crystals and moss and flowers. Bees thrive in her care. Robin is an audio engineer and has done many documentaries for NPR. She won the Robert Woods Johnson award, the Robert F Kennedy Journalism award, the Peabody award (3 times), and a bunch of others. She’s a consummate professional and I am thrilled she helped bring this audiobook into the world.
Most of the chapters have three parts: a story about my bees doing something interesting; factual or scientific information that further explains what they were doing; and then what the bees have to say on the topic. In the audiobook, I read the first two and Robin, in her mellifluous bee-enlightened voice, reads the parts from the bees.
To hear samples of the “Song of Increase” audio book, just hit this link below.
Here are some audio samples.
The opening of the book, “When the bees speak, I listen.”
“The hive is a holy place.” We’ve stepped so far away from seeing them this way. Let’s return ourselves to being respectful again.”
“The Song of Unity: How bees see themselves, their colony, and the world.” In the bees’ words, how they see themselves.
“The Bees: Living in Unity.” We bear increase into the world as we sing the world into aliveness. We meet each task with a steadiness of spirit.