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Bob Henke column: Bees and their sources of nectar

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I am not in great humor as I write this. I thought it would be quite easy, answering a simple question. Someone wanted to know what bees eat in the fall and winter. This reminded me I had left one honey super on a hive, trying to get the last of the cells sealed over. Normally, when I take honey off, I take out individual frames and just brush the bees off. This lets me keep any frames with mixed types of honey separate from the various varieties.

In the fall, this is not a great idea because bees from the other hives smell the honey and, without good sources of nectar, go crazy trying to rob the honey. So I did the next best thing, I put on a bee escape. This is a device that lets the bees go out of the box through a maze but not come back in. It is a very effective and gentle way of getting the honey — except in this case.

Dr. Wifey likes to come along when I do the poultry chores so I ride her out on the Gator. She doles out any food scraps we have to the chickens while I do the feeding and watering. Then we make a trip around through the woods and back by the beehives, just to check on things.

Things were not good. She pointed out a huge amount of activity around the hive with the escape on it.

There was a small crack in the bottom of the bee box. Robber bees had chewed it big enough for an entrance, and there was a huge cloud of bees busy stealing the honey. Robbing activity is not good because it will sometimes spread to the point you wind up with one hive full of honey and the others all empty and starving.

Accordingly, I went out after dark with a brand new roll of duct tape (which is supposed to cure everything) to cover the hole. It must have been a particularly contentious day because there were still a bunch of bees fighting around the hole. This was bad for, not anticipating any bees outside the box, I had a flashlight trapped under my arm while I worked on unwrapping the tape. A dozen or so bees immediately launched an attack at the light. I got four nice stings on my arm and hand as I worked to get the light turned off.

With a big hunk of tape ready, I picked a big handful of the asters growing by the yard, used them as a brush to get the bees away from the hole, and slapped the tape over the hole. Two bad things immediately happened. First, when I undertook to toss the aster stems up in front of the hive in the dark, I did not make it and they dropped — right on my foot. The bees were savaging my foot (they hate black socks) when the second problem occurred. The duct tape fell off.

To shorten the story, I tried everything up to wrapping a strip all the way around the hive, and the tape would not even stick to itself. I finally had to break and run with a couple dozen stings, including one through my heavy jeans. It turned out the tape came from some great mail offer, it was produced in China, and the adhesive was dried to the point of flaking off.

In this humor, I will undertake to answer the question — where do the bees fly to find nectar in the fall and winter? In the winter, or actually any time when the temperature is under about 60 degrees, the bees do not fly. They cluster together inside the hive consuming the honey stored there. A worker bee in the summer time may live about three weeks. The arduous task of foraging wears them out and leaves their wings in tatters.

During cold weather, the bees in the cluster when winter begins are the same bees that begin foraging in the spring. They do not warm the entire hive. Forming a tight cluster about the size of a child’s head, the bees on the inside eat honey. As soon as they begin to metabolize this high-energy food, it generates heat, makes them too warm and they move to the outside of the cluster. The bees who have been getting a bit chilly out there move in, have a meal, and repeat the process. The cluster is in continual flux while making the most efficient use of the energy possible.

Before this, in the fall, while humans are focused on the changing colors and harvesting fall crops, there are a number of good nectar sources for the bees. On my property, the spring buckwheat has been disced back into the soil and has reseeded itself to make a nice late crop. Much of my bees’ winter stores are nice dark buckwheat honey. For others, although the goldenrod has mostly gone to seed, there is another whole group of fall-flowering plants doing their thing. In this area, these consist primarily of various asters.

For some reason it is easy to overlook the asters. Most are small white, yellow-centered flowers. While not individually dramatic, there are millions of them and the bees seek them avidly, even on warm days after a frost has killed most everything else. On my property, I do not do late mowing, allowing at least four types of wild aster to burst forth. Calico asters stand out with a decidedly violet cast to the inner part of the petals. Also called starved asters because their stems often appear brown and dried, bees will draw both nectar and pollen from calicos.

Another interesting aster my bees love is the panicled aster, also called lance-leafed aster. These grow taller, sometimes as much as five feet high with clusters of 3/4 inch white flowers. You can pick these out because the lower leaves curl tightly and turn brown as soon as the plant begins to blossom.

The third white aster we have is the frost aster. Not as tall as the panicled, the flowers are a bit larger with more thin white petals. There are small leaves right out on the flower stems and the stems are covered with small hairs giving them a hoary look. These are latest blooming of the asters with the bees still getting some use from them well through October.

The final aster is easy, although my Grandmother taught me to call them “wild mums.” This is the New England aster, a tall plant with large bunches of beautiful lavender flowers. A close look will show an aster-type flower, just in an unexpectedly vivid color. My bees seem to draw pollen from these more frequently than the other asters. While bees in a hive all work the same honey source at the same time, the bees will work all the aster species together — perhaps we humans are a bit too persnickety in looking for differences?

And now I must go get rid of these jeans. Turns out the sting through the heavy cloth left the poison glands intact on the outside and every time I move I get another sting right beside the others. Bee keeping is such a gentle relaxing occupation. ...

Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.


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