Friday, April 27, 2012

Presenting a Package of Bees

A rite of spring for many beekeepers is ordering new bees either to replace a hive lost over the winter or to add to an apiary.  One way to accomplish this is to order package bees - a package of bees that typically is delivered by US Mail.  Think of it!

Since we had started our bees from a different method, I just had my first look at a bee package a couple of weeks ago thanks to Jean and Dick Vose of the Knox and Lincoln County Beekeepers Association in midcoast Maine.  They played postoffice, in a way, and acted as a distribution site for people who had ordered package bees from a nearby commercial beekeeper, Rick Cooper, and gave a demo on how to 'hive' the bees, or install them in their new home.  

I can truly see why postal service workers would be wigged out by having to distribute bees in this way.  The package is a box with screening around the sides that hardly seems enough to keep the mass of bees safely inside.  It is outfitted with a metal can that contains - or contained - sugar solution for feeding the bees in transit.  Somewhere in the protection of the thousands of bees inside is a smaller package that contains the queen and a few so-called attendants, worker bees who feed the queen and groom her, the only really royal treatment the queen gets.  She is more accurately described as an egg-laying slave.  Such is life for the queen honey bee, the life of the hive, the most important individual bee in the hive but who makes no decisions, no royal decrees, no proclamations, but whose health is monitored as closely if not more than that of any head-of-state.  She is tucked inside the screened-in box and will soon be released into the dark safety of the hive box when the beekeeper picks up the package and transports the buzzing throng to its new home.

Package bees contain three pounds of bees - about 10,000 - 12,000 bees. They will get the hive set up and going until the queen starts laying eggs which then take about three weeks to develop and emerge as the next generation.  And they don't need any instructions.

 Here are a few photos from the package pick-up....

Jean Vose sprays hungry bees with sugar syrup while Susan Smith-Riedel looks on.

Package bees.  In right segment see small white area of new comb!
Closer look at bees in package.  
Removing the syrup container from demo package.

Jean demonstrates queen cage.

Empty hive body ready for bees!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Don't Dis Dandelions

Dandelion landscape with pollen-toting honey bee
Dandelions need more respect.  Possibly a bee for a public relations agent would help. 

Dandelions are one of the first flowers to bloom and they are most definitely used by our most beneficial of insects - the bees!  There is a place if not a need for an area of dandelions in any yard.  People just require a new way of thinking about them.  They are not weeds but rather bright yellow flowers that provide nectar and pollen for flower foragers! 

These photos from last year present four species of bees that utilize dandelions.  I am on the look out for more this year.  Note how the pollen turns orange when the honey bee packs it in her corbiculae, tamped in place with a bit of regurgitated nectar that helps preserve it.   

Honey bee, front view, nose-diving into flower

Andrena  sp. female on dandelion

Nomada sp. (a nest parasite) on dandelion.  This male bee is also a pollinator.

Unidentified native bee on dandelion

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

And So It Begins!

They say that one bluebird doesn't make a spring and certainly beekeepers know that a honey bee doesn't either, but maybe one Andrena bee does?

On Sunday, April 1, as I was marveling at the number of honey bees foraging on early-blooming and invasive weedy coltsfoot flowers, I noticed a bee that was not a honey bee!  Here it is:

Andrena sp. on coltsfoot

For years, we have noticed a myriad of low-flying insects over a part of our lawn.  When I became a beekeeper and suddenly found myself much more aware of insects of all kinds, I realized they were a native bee species.  A bit of searching in the wonderful Xerces Society book, Attracting Native Pollinators,  led to the identification as an andrenid bee, otherwise known as a miner bee for its method of excavating a nest tunnel in the ground.  They emerge in the spring, often the first bees of the season, as they possibly are here.  Last year I first noticed them much later than April 1, and after I made note of this one solitary individual, I ventured over to the area where they typically have had their numerous nest holes.  Yes!  There they were, not in the great numbers that hopefully there will be later in the spring, but at least 20 or so flying close to the ground.

Several of the photographs allowed me to count the segments in the insect's antenna. The odd-numbered result leads to the identification of a male andrenid, but the species is unknown.  As is the case with most native bees, a positive identification would mean killing the bee and examining it and several dissected body parts under the microscope.  I am happy enough to know that it is a miner, and that it is the first of hopefully many kinds of bees to forage here this season!  No April Foolin'!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Beesy Herbs

How can I resist?  Here is my short list of herbs for bees, honey and otherwise...

Bumble bee on borage
Borage - this is named on many lists of suggestions for bees.  An annual, it has an array of blue flowers that face downward from fuzzy stalks.  I only grow it ornamentally - in fact that is true for quite a few of the herbs.  It is supposed to be good in iced drinks and the  young leaves evidently taste like cucumber.  It reseeds itself every year  -  the visiting bees are responsible for this - and I usually let it grow where it may. 

Bumble bee on lemon balm
Lemon balm - who would have guessed the insignificant little flowers would attract bees?  But they do.  I found my star bumble bee of last summer on them.  This herb is a perennial and tends to spread by seeds.  This one makes a delicious tea with the fresh leaves.  But in order to attract the bees, you have to let it grow and flower!

Honey bee on catnip

Catnip - almost the same as above, not just for cats.  I grew the lemon-scented variety last year and it is already quite a nice cushion coming up in the garden, but its demure stature right now will not last.  I expect to find seedlings as well. 

Honey bee on apple mint

Mint - apple and others - another perennial and if you have never grown it, beware.  This plant can take over.  Either make use of that trait and plant it where you need a vigorous ground cover, or encircle the plant with a bottomless pot or other barricade to prevent the ranging roots from escaping.  Even that might not be foolproof.  I  repot ours every year and sometimes find sprigs that are quite far from the pot grabbing some turf.  Don't get me going on the spearmint that I just let go one year.  Applemint seems a bit tamer but I think maybe it's just playing a deceitful game.  However, of all the mints, applemint is very attractive, soft green with softer fuzz, and attractive sprays of purple flowers.  Not my favorite for ice tea, but a good one to keep for bees.  You can then feel free to cut the spearmint!

Two bumble bees on spires of anise hyssop

Anise hyssop - now here is a wonderful bee plant.  Dense spikes of small purple flowers that especially bumble bees go for top this perennial that also sends seeds flying.  In the fall, gold finches also love eating the seeds so it has multiple uses in the garden.  It's not a particularly long-lasting perennial but no worries because there are always new ones coming somewhere and they are easily transplanted to wherever you want them.  Like all the three previous, this is a tea herb. 

Honey bee on spotted beebalm

Spotted beebalm or horsemint (Monarda punctata) - this unusual herb which I grew from seed last year flowered late with several layers of pale yellow spotted flowers arranged in a circle around the stalk.  Topped off with a halo of pinkish bracts, this plant really surprised me with its understated beauty.  And honey bees were regular visitors.  Sources suggest medicinal uses or tea for this US native plant, neither of which I have tried.  But thanks to the experience with this beebalm, I am going to try several others this year, also from seed. 

Notice how most of these plants have blue-purple-white flowers?  They attract the most bees.
Other plants I will be watching more closely this year for bee and other beneficial visitors are common garden chive and garlic chive blossoms and basil flowers.  Garden chives are quite pink but the garlic chives trend more toward purple so I will be interested if bees favor them more.  Basil is hard to let flower because it is so handy and tasty for cooking.  Dill and fennel are not as attractive for bees but I have had swallowtail larvae on especially the fennel fronds. 

And one more herb of note that I know is a bee magnet is thyme.  Our rock garden area that has reverted au naturel over the years still has quite a bit of very low growing thyme that is covered with bees when it is blooming.

Next on the list will be perennials that are more traditionally in borders or in fields that attract bees.  Often all of these plants, herbs, annuals or perennials, attract other pollinators such as flower flies or hover flies and butterflies making them especially useful plants to add to a garden.  Pollinators add color, sound and their presence that all augment the beauty of any backyard or border.  And they pollinate to ensure a storehouse of seeds for the future and for food for wildlife as well.