Whilst my head tells me that growing my own food is the most important thing that I do here at The Sustainable Smallholding, my heart tells me that it is my bees that are most important to me. It’s only now, with the bees active again, that I realise how much I’ve missed them for the last three months. Here’s a short update on how they are.
I was getting worried about my bees, as the weather had not allowed them to forage, and there was a real shortage of nectar producing plants. With double the number of hives this year, early forage was always likely to be short, but the weather has made that worse. At the end of last week, I decided to get some feed into the hives. Now this is something that I would have preferred to avoid. My aim is to feed honey, not sugar syrup, but if I had stolen any more of my honey from out of the cupboard, I think that I might have had to deal with marital mutiny.
I treat for varroa with a mixture of essential oils, and have read that this is at it’s most effective when going into the hive through the entrance, rather than from above the crownboard. Doing it this way gets the food straight into the brood, rather than having it stored. At this time of year, I’m guessing that this is not so much of a problem as it would be later in the year, when the bees are preparing for Winter, but I didn’t have an effective means of delivering the feed at the entrance. I tried some plastic, commercial entrance feeders, but the edges were curved, and left gaps around the feeder, which seemed to encourage robbing. This year, I noticed a square wooden block adaptor, that works with an inverted honey jar. The wood blocks the full height of the entrance, and has square sides, so that I can use wooden blocks to restrict the width of the entrance. This has worked reasonably well. The jar is obviously small, so may not be suitable for Autumn feeding, but it gives me a starting point. I can try and find a larger jar, with the same sized neck, or use two or more at a time.
The picture above shows the entrance of one of my hives, with bees laden with pollen. The bee bottom centre is still in flight. The striped wooden surface to the left of the picture is the edge of the wooden feeding adaptor that I mentioned earlier.
The bees have been bringing in at least three types of pollen. A deep orange that is probably Snowdrop, a normal orange, that is probably crocus, and a buff colour, that I’m not sure about. I need to dig out my pollen guide, and see if I can identify it.
My willow is still not flowering. The trees are covered in catkins, absolutely bursting, I’ve not seen them looking so lovely, but no food yet. I just hope that when they start to produce, coincides with weather that will allow the bees to take advantage of it. This picture was taken last week, and shows just how many catkins are on the branches. This is a small section of a single tree, planted about eight years ago. Sadly it doesn’t show the scarlet of the branches quite so well.
The shortage of forage has led me to consider what my next stage of planting should be. Whilst I know that in the longer term, the trees that I’m planting will give me that early forage, there is a delay between planting, and flowering. However, I need forage quickly. Planting Spring bulbs, like crocus, will help to solve some of the forage problems, but they’re not as useful as many of the other plants that I will be using. I could always reduce the number of hives that I have here, temporarily, but I’m loathe to do that, so I’m faced with a dilemma. Do I plant some bee forage plants, that will flower next Spring, but not be much use for anything else, or do I perhaps stick to Permaculture Principles, by using plants with multiple uses, but which will take longer before they start to produce? Plenty to consider.
On a similar subject, I’ve noticed that some of the trees/shrubs that I planted last Winter, are producing some flowers this Spring. Not enough to be significant, but a hopeful sign for next year, when the quantity of flowers should be greater. This year has also seen the first catkins produced by the two varieties of willow which I obtained Summer 2008. Both are going to flower a little later than my Salix daphnoides, but that should help extend the period of flowering. If the three varieties that I am trialling are earlier than my current batch, it could give me quite a long flowering period for the Willows. Most of the willow that I’ve planted starts to produce catkins the second Spring after planting, which is quite quick, even if the quantity isn’t great in the first few years.
So still plenty to think about. It’s obvious that I need more early forage. The bees like the crocus, which is not too expensive, flowers in the Spring following planting, but it has very little else to recommend it other than looking nice. Shrubs could also work, but will be more expensive to buy in. They can be propagated quite cheaply, but then I may have to wait a little longer before they start to flower. Trees will eventually be the main providers of forage, but some species will take years to start to contribute.
In the hedgerows I’ve noticed some deadnettle flowering, and there is a creeping weed, with a small blue flower, that is crawling across my vegetable beds, in flower, at the moment. My neighbour has some Pulmonaria in flower, but I still haven’t seen bees on it. I’m not sure why. I bought some Acacia last Spring, and it is just starting to flower. The cold winds have given it some leaf damage, but with a bit more protection, it should add to the food at this time of year. I grew two varieties from seed last year, A. Dealbata, and A. Pravisima. Both sets were left outside, and quite a few didn’t make it, but some have, and these will be potted on, and grown until I’ve created a sheltered spot for them. I saw a few large specimens in a garden centre recently, and they didn’t have anywhere near as much wind damage, but it’s impossible to know how sheltered they are compared to mine. They were A. Dealbata, and it’s possible that A. Pravissima may be a little hardier. It certainly grew better from seed last year. the bought plants are grafted, which may mean that my seed grown ones will take a while before they flower.
If you keep bees, I hope that they’ve done OK over the Winter, and if you have any suggestions for early bee forage, with other practical uses, I would be interested to hear them.