Notes from Windward: #70


Bee Keeping at Windward

The queen bee of Alpha hive


      There were some big questions in my mind when I moved 3 hives here last fall. My main concern as a bee keeper was whether or not their are sufficient nectar sources for the bees to allow them to store away enough honey to make it through the cold winter dearth.

      It is important to remember that a hive needs to take care of its own needs before providing excess honey to harvest for our eating pleasure.

      The hives have done well here. Nosema (bee dysentery) and mites were not a problem. The challenges of feeding, swarming and queen loss presented the beekeepers with learning opportunities.

      In mid March the hives were offered sugar syrup. This feeding was done to supplement the early flower bloom. The syrup was used slowly by the bees. This slow consumption was an indicator that nectar sources were available. Maple is a common first flowering nectar source for bees in the early spring. There are a handful of large, prolifically flowering maple trees on a neighboring property. These Maples probably accounted for a significant quantity of the early spring nectar. The supplemental feeding was discontinued at the end of March.

Hive top feeders being employed on Alpha hive in March, 2010

      Capped queen cells were found in Alpha hive in early May. The hive was split in an attempt to prevent swarming. The hive swarmed despite our efforts. The swarm landed nearby on a low branch and was easily placed in a hive box.

Mary Lou and Lindsay "Hiving" the swarm from Alpha hive

      Alpha hive swarmed several more times and the swarms were not caught. Alpha became a small, weak hive and eventually was queenless. At the end of May we had one strong hive (Gamma) with lots of bees and a fertile queen. The other 3 hives were weak but growing.

Alpha hive swarm

      Hive inspections showed slow honey accumulations during late-spring/early-summer. This is evidence that there are not native populations of nectar producing plants at this time. Some plants that could be cultivated in our environment that produce nectar during this dearth include:

  • Borage (Borago officianalis), prolific nectar source, blooms spring-fall if given adequate water. we are already growing some Borage in several places.

  • Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) good early spring (March-April) nectar source, will grow in very poor soil, a may naturalize easily in some areas

  • Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) produces lots of flowers, blooms spring-summer, may naturalize easily

  • Corriander- potentially an early summer nectar source, smell apparently deters mites.

  • Echium (echium candicans), prolific nectar source, very drought and heat tolerant, may naturalize. self seeding annual in Mediterranean climates

     At the end of June honey storage increased rapidly coinciding with the bloom of a large black locust tree. Gamma hive was able to store a large amount of honey. The 3 small hives had fewer bees and were slower bringing in the nectar. I was concerned about the survival of the weak hives and combined the 2 smallest hives to form a stronger one - Beta.

     Honey production continued at a slower rate into August. In mid August the hives had honey stored for winter in the brood boxes and some excess honey.

     The excess provided us with a fun, sticky yummy honey harvest.

Opalyn holding a frame loaded
with capped honey

     At end of August honey supplies in the hives were decreasing. Feeding with sugar syrup was hive top feeders was started. This is evidence that there is a natural shortage of nectar at this time of year. Some plants that could be established on the property to provide nectar from august through the fall include,

  • California buckwheat, (Eriogonum fascicularis) Evergreen, Very drought resistant; long summer bloomer

  • anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) related to mint, blooms for 1-2 months from mid to late summer

  • sagebrush (Artemesia spp.)

     Coinciding with the decreasing honey supplies, clusters of bees around the hives, aggressive and loud buzzing bees in the bee yard all suggested that robbing was occurring. The "Robbers" may be from a neighbors hives, or from feral colonies created by repeated swarms of Alpha hive.

     The feeders were removed from the hives and placed in a site away from the bee yards. Many bees were feeding there, eating 2 gallons of sugar syrup a day! That is not a sustainable rate of syrup consumption.

     Robbing occurs during a nectar dearth (shortage). Adding hive-top feeders may have encouraged this activity. Entrance reducers were placed on the hives. this will allow the bees in the colony to better guard the entrances and protect the hives. Hopefully when I stop the feeding, robbing will not recur.

     In conclusion, I believe sustainable bee keeping is possible at Windward. The bees have proven that there's a large nectar source here durring parts of the year. Additional nectar sources will be available in the years to come, as we continue to increase and diversity the nectar sources of native and naturalized plants on site. Hopefully, we will be able to establish a seasonal cycle of nectary plants to prevent the kinds of nectar dearths the bees now experience.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 70