The amazing salvia flower

You can find some really amazing things in the garden if you know where to look. For example, look closely at a salvia flower and you will see something unique.

Like most flowers, salvia produces nectar to lure pollinators such as wild bees, honeybees and others. And as usual the pollinators end up carrying pollen it picked up from the first flower to the next flower it visits thereby pollinating the second flower and others after that. Usually nectar collection is pretty straight forward, the bee simply visits the flower and sucks out the nectar and moves on to the next flower.

In the case of salvia however, something marvelous happens. The flower has a tiny structure that blocks access to the nectar. Instead if simply inserting its tongue and sucking out the nectar, the pollinator has to physically push itself deeper into the flower past the blockage in order to get to the nectar. That tiny gate that is hindering the bee is connected to the flower’s stamens by way of a pivot point like a see-saw. At the other end of the see-saw are a pair of stamens. At the very end of each stamens is a pollen sac.

When the pollinator pushes against the blocking structure, it causes the stamens to pivot downward. As the stamen moves down and touches the pollinator’s back, pollen is released from the pollen sacs onto the insect. The pollen sticks to that spot on the insect and once it is done gathering nectar, it moves on to other salvia flowers carrying the pollen with it.

To see the stamens move, use a pencil to mimic the pushing action of a bee inside the flower.

All salvias have this astonishing mechanism in their flowers. Different species of salvia have slightly different lengths,sizes and shape of stamens. Some scientists believe that the different lengths of stamen by species minimizes hybridization ie. the pollination of two different species with one another. One type of salvia may deposit its pollen toward the rear of the insect while another may deposit at the front thereby reducing the mixing of pollen.

We’re nearing the end of the growing season but there are still some salvias blooming.

Bob

 

Planting buckwheat for weed control and helping honeybees

I have an area in the garden that I will not be able to plant this year. Instead of letting it stay fallow and grow weeds, I planted buckwheat. It’s something I’ve done through the years whenever I’ve been unable to use an area for one reason or another.

Buckwheat is a fast growing plant that will out compete most weeds. Planting buckwheat allows me to place-hold that unused garden area while reducing weeds at the same time. It also takes up mineral nutrients from that soil that are unavailable to other plants. Those minerals are incorporated into the growing plant. Eventually, I’ll cut down the buckwheat and till it into the soil. As it decomposes, all those minerals will be released back into the soil in a form that other plants can use.

Buckwheat is not an actual wheat at all. Wheat is a type of cultivated grass, buckwheat on the other hand, is a broad-leaf plant.  While regular wheat forms inconspicuous flowers that are hidden, buckwheat grows a profusion of while flowers. Those flowers are very attractive to honeybees and other pollinators. The dark, strong flavored honey that results from buckwheat nectar is highly prized by some honey aficionados.

Many years ago when I first started beekeeping, that dark buckwheat honey was considered a low quality product. Now that has all changed and buckwheat honey is often sold at a premium.

Buckwheat seeds have a distinctive pyramid shape.

Planting buckwheat is a simple process. Till the spot you’re planting, spread some seed over the area and lightly rake it into the soil. Figure on using a couple pounds of seed per thousand square feet. In a few days you’ll see the young buckwheat plants emerge from the soil. If after a week or so of growing, some of your planting looks a little thin, sow more seed to fill in the area. Buckwheat can cover a space up to ten inches in diameter but an open spot larger that a foot across will allow weeds to grow.

I’ll keep you updated on the progress the buckwheat makes through the growing season.

Bob

Bees forage on chicken feed during winter warm up

We’re back to near normal temperatures after that stretch of unseasonably warm days in late February.

Maybe you noticed last week all the honey bees that were out flying. They took advantage of the nice days to make their cleansing flights to defecate outside the hive. Bees avoid passing their digestive waste inside the hive whenever possible.

They also worked to remove the bodies of bees that had died during the winter as part of their natural housekeeping behavior.

One thing that surprised me was the number of bees out foraging for pollen. Of course in the middle of February there were very few, if any, flowers to visit. I noticed a few flowers blooming in micro-climates that are located in well-protected south facing areas. That wasn’t enough to really collect much pollen.

I keep a several dozen laying hens on my property. During the winter they’re fed a special recipe that I have specially made at our local grain mill. The bulk of the recipe is locally sourced corn and protein supplement along with some vitamins and minerals. All the ingredients are ground up and mixed together by the mill. The result is a dry, coarse mix that has a wide variation in particle side ranging from slightly cracked corn all the way down to fine grain dust. The dust component is so fine it can easily be blown about by the wind.

Last week I unintentionally left the top of my feed storage open for part of the day, usually I close it right away to keep the rain out. Late in the day when I when to give the hens their afternoon meal I was  startled to see dozens of honey bees flying in and out of my feed bin. They were carrying away tiny loads of very fine chicken feed on their legs where they normally carry pollen.

Bees were flying back and forth all day collecting finely ground chicken feed.
Bees were flying back and forth all day collecting finely ground chicken feed.

 

Flower pollen is highly variable in food value. Protein content ranges anywhere from just a few percent to 40 percent or more. Many factor determine the amount of protein present in pollen; plant species, growing conditions, and rainfall among others. Protein content may even change somewhat during the growing season.

My chicken feed recipe is about 18-20 percent protein which falls in the lower range of pollen. It’s not as high as real pollen but it also contains vitamins and minerals necessary for chicken as well as bee growth.

I guess the bees decided since there were no flowers, they’d do the next best thing and collect a pollen substitute to take back to the hive. Heck, they were out flying anyway so, why go back empty handed?

Inside the hive, the bees will pack the grain dust into honey comb cells where it will ferment, just like real pollen.  The process is sort of like what we do make pickles, cheese, sauerkraut or beer. The fermentation process breaks down the indigestible components into an edible form that young bee larvae can more easily digest.

Once the flowers start blooming, the bees will probably lose interest in the chicken feed. They’ll happily go back to collecting their preferred protein source, flower pollen.

Bob

Fresh Water Helps Honeybees

We know that planting flowering plants will go a long way to help our local honeybees.  They need more than pollen and nectar from flowers however.  Providing a source of clean water will help them thrive.

As I was potting up plants the other day, I was reminded how important water is to honeybees.  Bees were collecting water from a bucket I have sitting out near the potting bench.  I keep this bucket full just so bees have a place nearby to collect water – they’re also fun to watch.

Bees use water during the summer to cool their hives.  They spread the collected water around inside the hive.  Then bees inside use their wings to fan air over the water causing it to evaporate quickly which cools the hive.

They like to keep the inside of the hive at about 93 degrees F.  You can imagine how warm it can get inside of an enclosed beehive exposed to the summer sun.  Even during cooler days, the hive temperature can rise due to body heat generated by all of the activity of thousands of bees – sort of like when thousands of sports fans get together inside a basketball arena with no air conditioning.

My bucket is out of the way where no one can bother it.  Sometimes the bees are so intent on getting water that they will accidentally bump into people passing by.

I timed individual bees and found out that it takes just about one minute for a bee to land, fill up with water and head back to the hive.  On a nice day earlier this week, the bees were drawing down one or two inches of water a day.  I know that my bucket is just one source of water for this hive and that they were using much more water than that.

As the temperatures approach the upper 90's F today, more honeybee workers are assigned to the task of collecting water.

Even though we have moved into late summer, it’s not too late to provide your neighborhood bees with fresh water.  Just be sure to change the water often to keep mosquitoes from breeding in it.

Bob

 

Bee Balm

While walking past a clump of Monarda the other day, I noticed the plants were humming with insects.  Even though the flowers were past peak blooming, all sorts of bees were buzzing around.

About half the blooms are left on this stand of Monarda and there are still plenty of bees visiting it.

I took a minute or so to look at the insects and counted at least a half dozen different species of the bee family. There were honeybees, paper wasps and some kind of bumblebee; those were easy to spot. Looking closer I could see other species of smaller bees that I was not able to identify.  It’s no wonder Monarda is called Bee Balm.  Butterflies and hummingbirds like Monarda too.

Bee Balm is a native plant that has found a place in the garden.  Normally, in the wild, it grows in damp areas.  In the garden, it grows fine in a flowerbed; you just need to give it a little extra water during dry spells. If you have a wet area that gives you problems, Monarda is a good solution.

Even though Monarda is a perennial, it is best to wait until spring before dividing and moving a clump to your garden. Fall planted Monarda will often winterkill.  I have grown it from seed; it is fairly easy to start and is a cheap way to get a lot of plants.

It grows to a height of three or four feet, has red, pink or purple flowers depending on the variety, and takes care of itself once it is established.

Monarda is also used as an herb.  In the herb garden, it is known by its other two names Bergamot and Oswego Tea.

Planting Monarda is an easy way to add color to your garden while helping our local honeybees and other pollinators.

 

Warm New Year’s Eve Welcomed By the Bees

Honeybees and their beekeepers all around our area were delighted by the 50F temperatures during the day on New Year’s Eve.

During the winter honeybees are not dormant, various things happen inside the hive depending on what’s happening with the weather.

Consuming honey is the primary activity of bees this time of the year. The energy they get from their stored food allows them to generate the warmth that is needed to keep them alive through the winter. The heat each individual bee produces is not very much and if left alone by itself, a single bee will die from the cold.

Honeybees are not solitary insects. They cooperate with one another in running the hive, that includes keeping themselves at a temperature warm enough to survive the winter. They manage to do that by bunching  together in a spherical cluster. This cluster will be smaller and tighter when the temperatures are cold so that the heat is held in.  If temperatures rise, the cluster of bees will expand somewhat.  If the temperature rises enough, they will break out of the cluster and begin moving around the hive.

You have to keep in mind that all of the honey that they consume is digested by the bee’s body and waste products are produced.

On New Year’s Eve, the temperature in our area reached 50F.  This along with the couple of hours of sunshine motivated the bees to fly from the hive in what is known as a “cleansing flight”.

Honeybees will not defecate in their hive if they can help it.  So they hold “it” for as long as they can waiting for a chance to take to the air and relieve themselves outside away from the hive.

After the bees returned from their cleansing flight, they took advantage of the mild temperatures to do some housekeeping.

The bees I captured this fall were out in large numbers during the day on New Year’s Eve. The air was filled with the sound of flying bees for a couple of hours until the rain moved in and forced them back into the hive.

This break from the winter weather helped them a lot.  Hopefully this small colony of bees will make it through the winter and eventually become a productive hive.

The most uncertain period for them still lies ahead.

Bob

Bees in the Trees

A few days ago my sister Vickie stopped by to visit and feed the chickens a treat of dry bread. While we were talking she asked me, “why didn’t you tell me you had a bee’s nest near your driveway?” I answered that I didn’t know what she was talking about.

It turned out that earlier in the summer a honeybee swarm had settled into a brushy area near my driveway. Instead of looking for a hollow tree or abandoned shed, they must have felt that they were adequately protected from elements and started to build honey combs right out in the open.  I hadn’t seen the hive because the undergrowth was too thick, it wasn’t until the leaves started falling that the bees became visible.  Honeybees will do this from time to time.

These bees were not visible until the leaves started to fall last week.

When bees do this, they use their own bodies as a wall to protect the Queen bee and her brood inside the nest.  This means that fewer worker bees are available to forage for nectar and pollen because they are preoccupied with keeping the hive warm and protected.  Fewer foragers means less honey and that equals less food available to the hive for use during the winter.  In our area, a hive like this would be unable to survive the winter without shelter.

Not wanting  to see them die a sure death, I decided to help them endure the upcoming winter by placing them into a beehive body made from a standard size wooden box used to keep bees. I’m feeding them sugar syrup to supplement the Goldenrod and Aster nectar they are collecting.

This honeybee is collecting nectar and pollen. Note the pollen she is carrying on her legs.

This was not a very large cluster of bees as far as bee hives go.  So they may not survive the winter anyway but at least I gave them a better chance than they would have otherwise.

Feral bees like these play an important part in the world of beekeeping. Since they are survivors they have the potential to carry important genetic traits that may make them resistant to the many diseases and parasites that plague bees.

I have more photos of the colony and moving the bees posted on line at my other site.

Bob

Less Than Ideal Summer for Honeybees

After checking the honeybees this week, I was dismayed at how little honey they had made for themselves this summer.
Looking at the number of honey combs that were filled, it became evident to me that probably only a third of the hives would yield enough honey for me to safely harvest.
Honeybees collect flower nectar and pollen through the summer and process it into honey which gets stored onto combs so that they have enough to eat during our long, cold winters. Any surplus is then collected by the beekeeper.
I talked with another beekeeper who said he noticed the same thing in his apiary and others were reporting similar findings. He even thought that some of his bees were consuming some of the honey that the bees were supposed to be saving for this winter.  We concluded that this summer had less than ideal flower growing and bee foraging conditions.
The season started out promising then some areas were hit by dry weather conditions. When it did rain, the storms were usually widely scattered. The timing of the rains may not have coincided with the flowers’ water needs for optimum nectar production. At times, we had rain when flowers were blooming. Since bees do not fly in the rain, they were unable to get out and collect nectar.
So what do we do? Some beekeepers are feeding sugar syrup to their weakest hives hoping that the bees will store some for winter use. Others have already harvested their honey after deciding which hives were the most productive. The rest are hoping that the bees will be able to collect enough nectar and pollen from the Goldenrods which are in full bloom right now. Of course that all depends upon the weather. We may end up having higher than normal bee losses this winter because of this  summer’s weather conditions.
If you keep a colony or two of bees, now would be a good time to check your hives, assess their condition and make a decision on whether or not your bees need some extra help this fall.

Wax Worms

Earlier this week I was asked to look over a bee hive that had not been attended to  since last fall.  For a number a reasons the owner was not able to care for the hive.

Opening it up I found just a few bees and very little honey. There was however a serious infestation of Wax Worms.

An infestation of Wax Worms indicates a weaken beehive.

Wax Worms are the larval stage of a moth that sneaks into weaken hives to lay its eggs which then hatch into larvae.  A strong healthy hive will keep Wax Worm moths from entering a hive.

Something had happened to this previously healthy hive.  Upon closer inspection, I was unable to find any bee larvae or eggs indicating that the Queen bee had died. With no Queen around to lay eggs, the remaining bees will simply live out their lives and with no young bees to replace them the hive will eventually be completely empty.

In the natural world, Wax Worms play an important part in the honey bee population. If a wild bee hive succumbs to a disease, the Wax Worms will move in and eat the remaining wax combs and other debris left over from the dead bee colony.  This is good because the infected wax is destroyed and will no longer be able to infect other bees that may want to move into that space.

Wax Worms are the only organism that can consume and digest beeswax and thrive on it.

When beekeepers store their extra empty bee hives, they have to be careful to protect them from Wax Worms moths because  the worms will destroy those hives too.  They not only eat the wax combs but can chew through the wooden parts of a hive as well.

I will probably go back next week and clean up that hive and try to salvage what I can from it.

Bob

New Bees

Last week I received some replacement bees that I ordered back in January. I needed them for the hives that were lost earlier in the year.

You can purchase bees from various bee supply stores. They are not sold by the dozen or by the gross, instead you buy them by the pound, usually in 2 or 3 pound packages.  I bought the 3 pound size (about 12,000 bees).  It makes sense that the more individual bees you start out with, the quicker you can get your beehive up to optimum working strength for nectar collection and honey making.

The packaged bees are raised and then shipped from Florida. They make it to their new home in Michigan in less than a day by truck.

The shipping container is a wood frame box covered with window screening.

By prying open the top cover you can see that the container includes a can of sugar water for the bees to eat on their journey north.

A small screened cage that houses the honey bee queen is suspended inside the bee package as well. Keeping the queen in her own protective cage keeps her safe during the journey.

 

I had to take out the sugar water can so that the bees could be released through the opening.

Then the queen cage was removed.

The queen cage was hung between a couple of hive frames. The frames are what holds the honey combs in place inside the hive.

The fun part is when you shake the bees out of the container. I shook a few over the frames.

 The rest were poured out near the front entrance of the hive. They started up into the hive right away. The queen bee gives off a special scent that lets all of her worker bees know where she is at all times.

I added some sugar water in a plastic feeder and closed the whole thing up with an empty hive box.

Tomorrow I’ll check the new hives to make sure the queens are still alive . If so, then I’ll be pretty sure that the new hives have gotten off to a good start.

Bob