Food for the Bees

It’s warm out — nearly 50*F — and tomorrow it’s supposed to be nearly 70*.  Don’t be fooled, this doesn’t mean it’s spring. Here in northern Ohio, you can’t be sure spring has arrived until June, and then it’s summer.

If the sun were shining, the bees would be flying. Instead, we have rain, making this a day of dullness, dead brown leaf litter, and grey skies and trees.

To escape, I’ve turned to the gardeners’ age old remedy for February: ordering flowers, a task made challenging because we live in the woods, with not much sun filtering through.

This activity was partly motivated by the beginning beekeeping class we recently repeated, which included a segment on planting for pollinators and reminded me it was time to get started.

These days, I order for the bees, focusing primarily on early spring and late summer bloomers, and making sure to order seeds and plants from nurseries that don’t use Neonicitinoids.

Simply put, Neonicitiniods kill bees. Not immediately, but this class of chemicals kills just the same. The pesticides reduce bees’ chances of survival and affect their hygienic behavior so they don’t clean the dead from the hive as efficiently, thereby allowing illnesses to spread more quickly. Even worse, Neonics affect the queen and the hive’s ability to replace her. Without a queen to lay eggs, a hive will die. (For more detailed information on neonicitinoids, visit PBS or the Xerces Society.)

So this year, I’m asking you to please think of our bees and other pollinators (and therefore yourself) when buying plants. Stay away from those who have been treated with Neonics. Several major retailers have asked their suppliers to label plants that have been treated. This is a good start, but try to avoid plants that a retailer can’t state unequivocally haven’t been treated. Ideally, stay away from pesticides altogether if you can, by buying plants that have been grown organically.

And don’t assume because a plant that’s labeled “pollinator friendly” hasn’t been treated. Some have.

Not so friendly after all.

If you’re truly concerned about the pollinators (and our world), you might go one step further by making your garden and landscaping plans with our flying friends in mind. To make this easier, Xerces Society provides suggested plant lists for every area of the country. 100Plantscover-224x300

They’ve also published several books on the subject including this one, which my friend Lynne told me about. (Thank you, Lynne! I use it every time I order plants!) Click here if you’re interested in ordering. I don’t get a kickback or anything. I just think it’s a great book, especially because it tells what type of pollinators prefer each plant.

One of the best early spring plants for bees is Skunk Cabbage. According to Wikipedia (from where these photos are borrowed) and other sources, Skunk Cabbage actually melts the snow, generating temperatures 27–63*F above the air temperature using a process called cyanide resistant cellular respiration.

Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the earliest plants to emerge in the spring, and a valuable resource for bees.
I ordered three.

Another early plant is the Hellebore (also called Lenten Rose).


My Lenten Rose as it started to bloom last March.

Bees like Hellebores too. In truth, they probably like anything with pollen or nectar that blooms in March, but I ordered two more because I like them too.

The Figwort, Mountain Mint, Rattlesnake Master, and Virginia Bluebell seeds were just for them though.

I also bought some more Self-Heal seeds because it did well last year. The Bumblebees especially seemed to like it. See? I’m not just about the Honey Bee! In keeping with that thought I ordered seeds for two types of Milkweed to provide food for Monarch Butterflies.

We have one tiny part of our property that gets sun, and The Engineer (finally!) built a raised bed there, so I’m going to try Lavender again and Pineapple Sage along with our peppers and tomatoes. I expect the herbs will do better in amended soil in the bed rather than the hard packed clay that passes for soil in our yard. I often think we should take up pottery instead of gardening, but I think the raised bed will help.

And now, for the bee update. We checked the hive last Thursday when it was warm enough to actually take off the top cover. Here are our ladies on the inner cover, very much alive and well.IMG_3318
They have still hardly touched the (many) sugar patties we have provided (because we are — okay, I am — paranoid they’ll run out of food). They crawl around and over the sugar, but mostly ignore it. This is good news because it means they still have honey, a naturally more nutritious food. IMG_3317
We also pulled out many dead bees from the bottom of the hive. IMG_3320
The Engineer always sorts through to make sure the queen isn’t in the pile, though we couldn’t do anything if she was. There are no queens available this time of year.

On sunny days, even when it’s not very warm, the bees have taken to flying out of the hive and landing on the snow. As expected, this kills them. “Wet bees are dead bees” is a common saying among beekeepers, although the bees haven’t seemed to get the message.

One of the (many) reasons I love my husband is because he rescues them, carefully scooping the silly things up in a jelly jar, bringing them in the house, setting them in the sun until they recover, and then returning them to their home.

It’s fascinating to see them come back to life. Legs and antennae start to twitch, before they begin to move and eventually take flight, buzzing around the jar. If there are more than one, they examine each other, carefully touching antennae and wiggling their bottoms.

It’s as if they’re comparing stories.

Maybe they are.


2 thoughts on “Food for the Bees

  1. Do you have comfrey? Whenever I’ve had it in the garden, grown for green manure, the bees have always loved it. It’s virtually unkillable, it doesn’t mind shade, it pulls up nutrients from very deep down, and it seems to make a lot of nectar. And the bees also loved Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) in the garden of my childhood home. My mother grew it for the dried leaves, to make lemon-scented ironing water for doing the sheets, and it was gorgeous, so I’m not surprised the bees loved it.


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