Wakey, wakey, rise and pollinate

blooming lovely

blooming lovely

Spring is in the air… finally. I have been itching to get and about with the camera for several days now, ever since the Japonicas burst into bloom with their beautiful, vibrant orange-pink flowers. I also noted that the almond tree wasn’t too far behind, with buds aplenty.

It has been warming up nicely, and apparently the bees won’t come out to actively forage until the temperature hits 13 degrees. And full foraging is not acheived until it warms up beyond 19 degrees. It was pleasantly mild at the beginning of the week, but then we were hit by a Vent d’Autan – a quite violent wind coming at us from the east, and this time gusting up to 60 kms/ hour. It lasted for 48 hours, and at times it felt like the roof of the house was coming off (luckily, it didn’t). I certainly didn’t feel like venturing forth, and I imagine the bees stayed indoors too.

Conditions yesterday were much improved, so off I trot with trusty camera to see what’s going down in honey bee world. And lo, there were the girls hard at work, collecting pollen from the stunning Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles japonica) bushes. All very photogenic – that’s the calendar image for March 2014 in the bag.

Just next to the Japonicas is a splendid almond tree, starting to blossom. I love this flower, with its tinges of pink and incredible perfume. The bees were here too, gathering up the yellow-brown pollen. This pollination work is important in the big almond producing regions of the world – the pollination of California’s almonds is the largest annual managed pollination event in the world, with close to one million hives (nearly half of all beehives in the USA) being trucked in February to the almond groves.

We have a whopping two trees, so hopefully the girls won’t bee too overwhelmed with the workload.

Almond : a symbol of delicacy

Almond : a symbol of delicacy

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A Big Thank You to the Sunflowers

The sunflowers this summer have been quite magnificent, and the house has been surrounded on three sides by their sunny, cheerful faces. This years are even more special because of the added dimension of suspecting that they could possibly be providing the raw materials for our first honey.

At their peak, each flower had perhaps 2 or even 3 bees working away collecting pollen / nectar.

I think we can be fairly certain that the honey that we did harvest comes virtually exclusively from the sunflowers. In other words, its a monofloral honey. I like to think that the bright yellow colour backs this theory up. The honey is now starting to crystallise- so whereas the honey initially was clear and reasonably fluid, it is now more opaque and much thicker and creamy – but equally delicious.

I have read that honeybees collect mostly nectar from sunflowers, whilst wild bees collect the pollen. Honeybees however cannot avoid picking up pollen – and will transfer it from flower to flower. Sunflowers rarely self-pollinate, and scientific research shows that pollinated sunflowers have a higher seed yield. A nicely balanced partnership.

The sunflower head is made up of individual florets, which start to open from the outside in. In the image below, there are five or six rings of florets which have opened – and will continue to open at the rate of two or three rings per day. On the day I took this image, all the bees were to be found just in this inner rim of the sunflowers. Each floret will mature into a sunflower seed.

flowers within the flower

So, a big thank you this year to the sunflowers – not only for their aesthetic perfection, their colour and cheer – but also the 30 odd jars of super honey. I must go and deliver a big pot to the farmer who planted the sunflowers, although I’m not sure if he should be thanking us (and the bees) as well – I wonder if the seed output has increased.

they can even be used for floral displays

Protein Packed Pollen

honey bee collecting pollen from asparagus flower

If its not to make honey, then what is the pollen being collected for?

It is the bees’ source of protein. In a year, a colony needs to collect and eat about 45 kilos of pollen. No single pollen delivers the full protein requirement, so bees collect pollen from many different sources.

When stored in the comb, it is possible (to someone more experienced than us) to identify the flowers from which the pollen was collected, by looking at the colour.

Back at the hive, the pollen is mixed with salivary products and small quantities of honey, and then stored in antiseptic cells adjacent to the empty brood cells that await the new generation. There it undergoes a chemical change becoming what is referred to as ‘bee bread’. This bee bread is also the principle food of adult nurse bees. Once she has ingested it, her digestive enzymes transform the nutritional supplement into a type of ‘mother’s milk’ which is then fed to the infant bee larvae.

  • most pollen is used as food for the larvae
  • pollen is the male reproductive spore of the plant
  • the baskets on the back legs are called corbiculae

honey bee, with full pollen baskets, on asparagus flower

Bee Forage : June

Would madam prefer nectar – the sweet, sugary fluid provided by the bramble flower? Also, the drink of the gods.

What’s on the menu this month? Forage is the term that we beekeepers use for the food sources available to bees. The reference books talk about the June Gap – a time when one mass food source has finished and another not yet begun. Its true that the oilseed rape has long since lost its bright yellow plumage and the sunflowers are nowhere near flowering. I am keen to find out what the bees are feasting on – not least so that we can perhaps plant more of their favourites for next year.

So far, I have seen plenty of activity around the lavender, honeysuckle and blackberry flowers. And then my attention was drawn to the asparagus bed. We stopped harvesting the asparagus about 4 weeks ago and it is now a mass of ferny foliage. And heavy buzzing. Its full of bees, all sporting bright orange pollen sacs on their back legs. The bees over at the bramble patch don’t have this. Time to delve into the reference books – here’s some pertinent foraging facts…

  • honey bees collect both nectar and pollen from flowers
  • only the nectar is used to make honey
  • they only collect one or the other on a trip
  • the nectar is transported in the stomach
  • this stomach is separate from the digestive stomach, although the bee can open a valve between the two if she is hungry
  • nectar is mostly water with dissolved sugar – the sugar content being between 25% and 50%
  • honey bees will collect nectar as far as 14 kms away from their hive
  • after visiting between 150 and 1500 flowers, the nectar stomach is full and almost equal to her starting weight

    Or perhaps, madam is partial to the nitrogen rich, protein packed pollen as found in these asparagus flowers?

    Phwoar

    birds do it, bees do it…
    ~ Spotted Asparagus Beetles ~