“The bee is domesticated but not tamed.” ~ William Longgood
A week and a half ago I put out a feeder to see if the bees were hungry.
Also a week and a half ago the Gulf Coast hadn’t plunged into sub-freezing temps. Though a lesser version of their summer splendor, flowers were still blooming in abundance. Zinnias, alyssum, cleome, and flamingo celosia could be found in every clearing on the farm. The tropical milkweed, which had been cut down to encourage Monarchs to fly south, had reappeared with surprising vigor and was covered in mopheads of orange flowers. Wildflowers, such as violets, Indian blanket, and railroad coreopsis were plentiful along with narrow-leaf sunflowers and some stalwart goldenrod which still bloomed along the Trace, a 30+ mile Rails to Trails path that transverses the northern half of the Apiary. And in the middle of our vegetable garden was the biggest pollinator magnate of them all–a Tithonia that had grown so tall that it fell over and then continued to grow until it became a huge, flower-covered meet-up for late-season pollinators. Ergo there were no takers for my second-rate bee meal.
Every beekeeper has a preferred feed for their bees. A room of 20 beekeepers will have 30 experts and 40 recipes for what to feed bees. My recipe is a mix of sugar and water in roughly equal parts with a few drops of lemongrass oil thrown in. Lemongrass oil mimics the pheromones of a queen and bees are drawn to it.
I suggest you not wear lotions or moisturizers containing lemongrass when preparing to be around bees. I speak from experience.
When the cold spell hit anything that didn’t die went dormant. Then it warmed, the bees came out to forage, and there wasn’t anything to eat. When you walked near the hives they would interrogate you to see if you were a flower. If you got very close they would bomb you–hitting you hard enough that you feelt them but not committing to stinging you. They were hungry and testy so I put out the feeder again and within half an hour it was a seething mass of feeding bees.
Bees work very hard on two things. They grow and divide to make new colonies, and they hoard honey like their lives depend on it because, in fact, their lives do. Bees maintain the same body temperature as humans which takes a lot of calories, especially in the winter. A healthy hive usually has no problem making enough to see them through the lean months, but domestic bees have to share their harvest with a beekeeper. Take too much and you will kill your bees. To make sure they won’t die of starvation we take very little in the fall, and we feed them until their interest turns again to flowers.
So, today’s chore list looked something like this:
1. Tend chickens which includes the usual checking of feed levels, making sure the automatic waterer is working, and collecting eggs. It also includes tending to about 35 out-of-season hatchlings living in the barn. More on that debacle later.
2. Finish planting what now seems a truly endless flat of bunching onions.
3. Clean and stack unused hive boxes in the loft. These have been inventoried and sorted to ensure we have enough of what we need to split hives when the time comes.
4. Feed bees. But do it in a bee suit because those rascals are more than a little grumpy right now.
5. Make the traditional New Year’s day meal which MUST include black eye peas, cabbage, and ham so that you will have health, wealth, and good luck in the coming year. Don’t test fate–git to it if you haven’t.
We feed using food-grade three-gallon pails because I can wrangle a three-gallon pail a lot easier than a five or six-gallon pail. The bees are consuming almost two of these a day. We’ll continue to put food out for them until they lose interest. When that happens depends a lot on what is blooming within their foraging range. One of the first spring food sources is red maple, so when you see the red of new maple leaves on the trees the bees are not far behind.