My local beekeeper association has kindly sent round a note reminding beginner beekeepers to check food stocks in their hives as his own bees are taking a substantial amount of fondant at the moment. The weather has been mild and sunny (in the south west anyway) and the bees have been flying. It’s fantastic to see them bringing back sunshine loads of pollen on their back legs – so why are they taking in ‘artificial’ food?
This is a strange time of year for honey bees in the UK. They can collect pollen readily enough, with trees such as hazel and alder dangling their catkins in the breeze. The pollen-bearing spirals become longer as they ripen and unfurl. The lack of strong winds this year benefits the bees as pollen stays on the catkins for longer, allowing vast quantites of this nutritious food to be collected.
Pollen provides protein in the honey bee diet and is important for building new bodies. It is fed to the developing brood that the queen has already started producing. However it is nectar that supplies bees with the carbohydrates that give them the energy to fly, and nectar is in much shorter supply than pollen at this time of year.
Many trees that are in flower in February and March, such as the hazel and alder, provide pollen but no nectar. One of the few tree species that does offer nectar is the willow (Salix spp.). Willows are particularly prolific near water and there are many different varieties all offering nectar even in the cool temperatures characteristic of March.
There are a few flowers brave enough to risk reproducing in March’s often wintery conditions too. Lesser celandine (left) is either great groundcover or pervasive weed depending on your position but on a sunny day (and preferably in a sunny position) honey bees can be seen enjoying the sugary rewards where it has been allowed to grow.Hellebores find favour with gardeners and bees alike. The dusky dames provide nectar with a high sucrose content for the bees so is particularly valuable to them. Another feature of hellebores which is a bonus is that they can provide pollen even in damp weather and each flower maintains a supply for up to 3 weeks, a rare feature of any flower.
Purple mounds of the alpine Aubretia are starting to appear on sunny walls and closer inspection will reveal honey bee presence.
At this time of year insect interest in flowers may be sporadic due to our low temperatures. Honey bees won’t fly below 50-55°F (10-13°C) and although bumble bees usually fly at temperatures lower than honey bees, the spring bees won’t surface until later in the spring so if you see a bumble bee it is likely to be a queen. Because honey bees overwinter in the hive they are ready to go much earlier in the season.
Colonies that still have honey supplies at this time of year can feed their foragers but for those with an empty larder they will have to collect nectar to power their search for pollen.
By planting nectar producing trees, shrubs and flowers that are in flower now, you can help honey bees maximize their chances of survival without recourse to sugar supplements. Most important however is to heft or weigh the hive so that you know whether they are out of food and at risk of starvation. If the cupboard is bare it really is time to act.
See hefting for more on gauging how much honey is in the hive.