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Feeding Honeybees, Your Mini-Livestock

Pussy willow, pollen rich.

By Leah Smith

Management is very important with farm animals. How they are raised effects the end products they produce, as well as the benefits they can provide on the homestead. Honeybees are no different. Here are some aspects to consider with your mini-livestock, the honeybees.

Hive Placement

There are requirements when you set up your beehives or bee yard. It shouldn’t be in a low spot in the landscape, and there should be protection from the winter wind and summer sun. But there are other important things to keep in mind when placing your hives. Though honey bees can easily cover a two-mile radius surrounding their hive (or more) to visit a nectar source, it only makes sense that the closer their food sources and the less time spent in travel, the more time the hive will have for performing other important duties; and though it depends on distance traveled and the sugar concentration of the nectar, easily half the energy obtained from gathering nectar can be expended in its collection. Close forage is therefore important for maintaining a healthy, ever-increasing bee yard. Plus, making use the pollination services of your honey bees means keeping them on the homestead and providing them with as diverse forage as you can. Many healthy bees will be willing to pollinate both what you want them to and what they want to.

Placement in an orchard setting is very advantageous, putting the honey bees right on the spot to provide pollination for you and also to take advantage of some early food sources. It is also helpful to plant common orchard companion plants, such as comfrey (Symphytum spp.), mints (Mentha spp.), chicory (Cichorium intybus), and hyssops (Agastache spp.); not only are they wonderful for the biodynamic/organic management of your orchard due to the benefits they provide (olfactory confusion of pests, soil aeration, weed suppression, mineral mining, and fostering beneficial insects, etc.), but they are another source of food for your honey bees. If you build a full-fledged fruit guild in your orchard, it will both produce more food for you and provide even greater opportunities to include bee-friendly plants, including blackberries (Rubus fruticosus), raspberries (Rubus spp.), currants (Ribes spp.), and gooseberries (Ribes hirtellum). Further, if it is necessary to plant a windbreak (which is beneficial to both orchard and honey bee), why not make it a nectar- or pollen-rich one? Plants such as pussy willow (Salix discolor, S. caprea, and S. cinerea), Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa), dogwoods (Cornus spp.), and Siberian pea shrub (Caragana arborescens) will fit the bill nicely.

Another tact to get bees where you want them is to plant flowers they love near flowers you want them to love; in other words, if you want them to pollinate garden crops that may not be their favorite forage, plant flowers nearby that will bring them into the right area. This is one of the many jobs performed by insectary strips (more about them below).

Also, though focusing on what to plant for your honey bees you must also remember that they require water as well as nectar and pollen. Bees will travel far to find the water they require just as they will for flowering plants, so it is important (especially in dry periods with little occurring naturally) to employ waterers to fulfill your bees’ needs.

Season Extension

As with cattle, hone bees want to spend as much time as possible out and eating. But with less and less of the world being wild, whether due to the effects of urban sprawl or destruction of fencerows or diminishing parklands or degraded soils that don’t support plants or land management that dictates removing all manner of “weeds,” it is becoming more challenging for them to find nectar and pollen sources for an extended period of the year. Early spring, when food supplies in the hive are low after surviving the winter, and fall, when humans have taken their harvest off the hives and bees may be out looking for a bit more nectar, are two especially important times of need; be sure to plant accordingly.

Redbud (Cercis spp.), serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), and pussy willows are valuable for the spring. Redbud and pussy willow are both pollen-rich, and some willows can also produce nectar sugar concentrations as high as 60%. Additionally, redbud and serviceberry are both highly ornamental and suitable for landscaping, while pussy willow, as noted, can serve as a windbreak; so they can each fill a niche in the landscape. Fruit trees such as plums (Prunus spp.), cherries (Prunus spp.), and peaches (Prunus persica) are spring bloomers and prolifically covered with flowers. If you don’t raise an orchard for your own fruit, consider planting native varieties of these fruits, whose blossoms can support the honey bees and fruits can feed song birds and other wildlife. Ornamental landscaping or fencerows can provide appropriate locations for these.

To ensure that your honey bees’ foraging extends into the autumn as long as possible, supply them with goldenrod (Solidago spp.), asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), native thistles (Cirsium spp.), sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), and cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) to visit. And brambles deserve a re-mention here. Plant black raspberries (R. occidentalis), blackberries, and both summer- and fall-fruiting red raspberries (R. idaeus), and you will have nearly an entire season of favored foraging for the honey bees and fruits for you, as the fall berries will bloom right up to frost.

Dogwood, a useful windbreak.

Diversity and ‘Rotational Grazing’

According to the Xerces Society, an optimum environment for pollinators should have 12 to 20 species of blooming plants with at least three blooming at any one time and spanning as long as possible throughout the year; think of it as rotational grazing with the succession of blooms leading the honey bees to new pastures. Plant diversity is important because it increases the likelihood that your honey bees will get all of the nutrients they require. It is possible for bees to be surrounded by blooms, but if the blooms are of a single variety that lacks complete nutrition (as most do) than they can still starve to death. Diversity is also necessary to keep your farm ecosystem in balance. For example, while clovers (Trifolium spp.) are famous as honey plants, they can also host tarnished plant bugs. Other plants that feed the bees and attract beneficials, like lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) or Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum), will keep the tarnished plant bugs in check and thereby balance the ecosystem.

How you arrange plantings can affect their ability to attract honeybees. For example, planting into “clumps” occupying at least four foot square is often more attractive than thoroughly mixed plantings with each flower as an individual amongst other individuals, if you will. Plants that are attractive and beneficial to honey bees can serve many other purposes and be used in pastures; as green manures, cover crops, and living mulches; for erosion control, ground cover, or in filter strips; and in hedgerows and insectary strips. If you think of these various environments as distinct, it will naturally lead you to selecting a greater variety of plants, as many plants work better in some settings than others.

Pastures that support cattle and other animals can also provide an occasional treat for your honeybees. Management is key here. No flowering, or partial flowering, of pasture plants is often the preferred stage for grazing; fully flowering plants may be too mature and no longer lush enough to be desired by cattle. However, flowering is what the honeybees want (of course). But, as pastures are periodically left to partially or fully flower in order to allow self-reseeding or be baled for hay, there can be times during the year when this varied management means a pasture can provide something for everyone. Alfalfa (Medicago sativa), red clover (T. pratense), and sweetclover (Melilotus spp.) are a few of the usual suspects when it comes to pastures.

Green manures (when defined as being planted during the summer season instead of cash crops as a source of fertility) will often be buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), or any of the many clovers.

Cover crops that protect the ground through the winter can be berseem clover (T. alexandrinum), crimson clover (T. incarnatum), mustards (Brassica spp.), and radish (Raphanus sativus). In place after winter, they will resume growth in the spring and provide spring flowers.

Living mulches provide many of the same benefits as green manures and cover crops (fertility and soil protection, etc.). Instead of being planted to replace a cash crop, however, they are planted with a cash crop and may well be in place over the winter period. Many plants can be used in any of these three situations, but as a living mulch they can be tightly fitted into a system that makes use of their weed suppression and honey bee-attracting qualities. For example, crimson clover is frequently planted between the rows in blueberry fields. White clover (T. repens) is a very short clover and a perennial, ideal for short crops in permanent bed situations. And cowpea is shade tolerant, working with row crops of any height.

Erosion control is a job often given to New Zealand white clover specifically. White clovers develop a fibrous root system once established, making them unexpectedly ideal for erosion control, and New Zealand white clover it is more vigorous and tolerant of differing soil types than other varieties. Heather (Calluna vulgaris), with its mass of small flowers, is great at both keeping soil in place and keeping honeybees happy.

For plants that cling to the ground as well as cover it, many low-growing herbs like lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus) and mother of thyme (Thymus praecox), and other plants like creeping potentilla (Potentilla neumanianna) are easily managed plantings that provide a flood of flowers.

Filter strips that act to prevent the loss of sediment, nutrients and other materials from the soil need not be simply grass. Planted either along various bodies of water or on extreme slopes, plants like beebalm (Monarda spp.), aster, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.), milkweed (Asclepias spp.), wingstem (Verbesina spp.), and blue vervain (Verbena hastata) make effective filter strips as well as ornamental and honey bee-friendly ones. As filter strip management allows for properly timed grazing, a planting of sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia), purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), and selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) would please both honey bees and cattle (the seasonal potential for runoff is highest from September through March, when plants should be at least three inches high and “fresh fertilizer” should not be deposited in a filter strip; outside this period, the land can be safely grazed and the fertilization will be appreciated).

Hedgerow plantings can make use of shrubs and trees that will not work in most other situations (in addition to their understory plants), and they can also be constructed to provide food sources for an entire season. Examples include flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), and winter honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.); a variety of small-fruited cherries, hollies (Ilex spp.), and viburnums (Viburnum opulus and V. lantana, for example); common privet (Ligustrum vulgare), panicled hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata), and hypericum trees and shrubs (Hypericum spp.); and Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) would provide forage from spring through winter, respectively, to create a truly heterogenous hedgerow.

Insectary strips can either edge or enter into plots, and be composed of annual or perennial plants (and thus are temporary or permanent). As well as promoting natural pest control by predator insects, they promote pollination of cash crops (and feed the honey bees). An annual insectary strip is likely to include cosmos, cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus), dill (Anethum graveolens), coriander/cilantro (Coriandrum sativum), marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia), and dwarf sunflowers. Perennial strips might have goldenrod, penstemon (Penstemon spp.), and lobelia (Lobelia spp.).

And Honey Bee Pastures

And finally, these pastures are plots of land of various sizes constructed with the foraging needs of honeybees foremost in the mind. They can include nectar- and pollen-rich herbaceous plants (including legumes) and wildflowers, and even shrubs and trees depending on the type of pasture. When planting a pasture, you can use a mixture of native and nonnative species, depending on conditions and your requirements. The plants may be perennials, biennials, annuals, or self-seeding annuals. You may create single-year, multi-year, or permanent productive pastures. As always, variety is key. Though any of the many plants previously mentioned would be welcome additions to a honeybee pasture, a few commonly used plants that I have yet to mention are phacelia (Phacelia spp.), purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.), wild lilac (Ceanothus spp.), or any of the native roses (Rosa spp.), such as R. rugosa.

Creating a Buzz

So if all of this care has gone into your honeybee diet, what is going to come out? When you have honeybees that have a rich and diverse diet, you have an exceptional product for sale — and lots of it. Honey is not meant to be a corn syrup stand-in; it can possess endless variations in color and taste. And even when you provide your bees with a variety of plants, a heavy nectar flow and well-timed harvesting can get you a single-source honey of great sellable value (though “blended” honeys are quite nice, too). We harvest white clover honey, which has a light, sweetly mild taste that is very appealing to many customers. Other notable single-source honeys include buckwheat, hyssop, meadowfoam (Limnanthes spp.), wingstem, and sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum).

Pollen can command high prices even as an “ordinary” product; add a novel aspect to it and you really have something. One morning when I was rhapsodizing about pollen on my breakfast yogurt, a co-vendor at the farmers’ market responded with a confused expression; he had tried pollen before and said it had no flavor, tasting like hay at best. I gave him some of our pollen, which based on the color and time of harvesting was largely from some of our many varieties of German bearded iris (Iris germanica). Though its grey color might not have seemed appetizing, it was sweet like candy. Next week he said he couldn’t believe the difference between the two pollens. In addition to flavor, pollen color can add something special to your product. Many preferred honeybee food source plants offer some unique shades, such as the greens of buckwheat, meadowsweet (Spiraea spp.), and rosebay willow herb (Chamerion angustifolium); the oranges of pussy willow, wild cherry, and asparagus (Asparagus officinalis); the burgundy hues of red and white clover; phacelia’s purple color; and gray borage pollen.

As with grass-fed beef and free-range chicken eggs, the quality of what goes into your honeybee hive is reflected in the products that come out. A homestead beekeeper is well positioned to produce superior products, whether they are cut-comb honey, extracted honey, or pollen, that will be worth the effort of producing and well worth the price they command.

Note: Many of the plant species in this article come in “horticultural hybrid” varieties. They may be pollen-less or lack other rewards for pollinators. Use native, those for naturalizing, or long-established varieties.

Leah Smith is a freelance writer and home and market gardener. She works on her family’s farm in mid-Michigan called Nodding Thistle (certified organic 1984-2009, principally by Organic Growers of Michigan). A graduate of Michigan State University, she can be reached at noddingthistle@gmail.com.