Honeysuckle is the name for a wide assortment of shrubs and vines, most introduced but there is a local, yellow-flowered northern honeysuckle. All honeysuckles like the sun, so they tend to be an edge plant. The bushes and vines are starting to bloom around now …early June…and they are very attractive to bees of all types, hummingbirds and butterflies. The flowers offer both nectar and pollen. The flowers are long and tubular and some varieties make it difficult for short-tongued honeybees to get nectar from them unless rain or dew floats it up. If a bumblebee cuts through the base of the flower and makes a sort of break-and-enter approach to nectar collection, the honeybees can come after, like a hyena following a lion, and get a nectar drink. The bushes and flowers come in various colours and forms. We have some dwarf bushes with red flowers and these bushes never seem to get above four feet high. We have some big straggly bushes with white flowers that are now forty years old and fifteen feet high. I’ve taken softwood cutting from the white-flowered bushes and we now have a 300 foot hedge of these bushes between two fields …one of the best plantings I ever did. Honeysuckle is easy to start from softwood (summer) cuttings with rooting hormone or in a jar of water (see willow witchcraft). They are maintenance free, vigorous, deer proof and bee friendly and birds like the berries in the late summer and, bonus …they are very beautiful. Foody factoid: haskap, the new wonderberry being planted around Nova Scotia, is a blue-berried honeysuckle. While haskap berries are edible, other honeysuckle berries are not; they are mildly poisonous to humans. Troubling factoid: honeysuckle berries, which ripen before wild blueberries could act as a host for “spotted wing drosophila”, a new pest whose egg laying can prejudice the salability of late harvested wild blueberries.
I never thought of forsythia as much of a bee plant, and according to the literature it is only a moderate source of pollen and nectar. What it has going for it is that it blooms a week before dandelions, when bees are desperate, and it can bloom profusely. The traditional forsythia is not very winter hardy: the amount of bloom and the height of the bloom on the shrub can give you a rear view mirror look at the winter just gone by. Two days of minus twenty in the winter and there will be few blooms in the spring; deep snow can protect the lower branches in which cases there will be blooms at the bottom and the bush will be bald on top. A new variety, Northern Gold, can survive minus 30, so that’s the one to plant for a good reliable show every spring. A mass planting is very showy …and might also do the bees a bit of good. It is easy to propagate forsythia, by softwood cutting in June or by “layering”. Horticultural factoid: water infused with crushed young willow bark promotes root growth in cuttings (see my facebook post on willows).
The horse chestnut tree blooms in May with spikes of white flowers. A big tree in bloom can be a spectacular sight and all the bees around, both wild and domestic think so too. On a sunny day in May our tree hums so loud you’d think it were going to rise off the ground. Some sources say horse chestnut honey is toxic to bee, but we’ve never noticed any ill effects …maybe because there are many other nectars available when the trees bloom in late May that any ill effects are buffered. The horse chestnut is an introduced tree, from Greece and Turkey via Europe to North America and is usually grown as an ornamental. It is easy to start but needs protection until it gets above deer height …deer can’t resist those fat, juicy terminal buds. Drive from Glenholme to Five Islands at the right time and enjoy the blossoms on lawn trees along the way. Recreational factoid: British kids play “conkers” with the nuts in the fall …see the video.
Bloodroot is an “ephemeral” …now you see it now you don’t. We have a planting on the north side of our house, pictured above on April 30, just poking through. It does very well there with about two hours of sun a day as the sun rises more and more in the northeast as spring comes on. It likes rich moist soil in a hardwood edge where it gets the spring sun and blooms before the tree foliage puts it in the shade, after which all we see is leaves the rest of the year. It is visited by bumblebees and other wild bees and honeybees and provides them with pollen. Apparently it doesn’t have to give any nectar reward to bees because it can self pollinate. Ants distribute its seeds by taking them to their nests. It’s rhizomes can be dug and divided to make plantings. There are many medicinal claims for this plant: in toothpaste to fight plaque and gingivitis and as a cancer medication, to treat skin rashes and as an insect repellent. “Only the dose makes the poison”, said Paracelsus, and bloodroot is one of those things to handle with care …the right dose a cure, the wrong one a poison. Interesting non-medical factoid: blood root gets its name from the red juice in its rhizome and that juice can be used as a natural fabric dye.
Pincherry is another one of the tree fruit that helps feed the bees in the spring. It blooms in late May. It is also sometimes called bird cherry. The bees and the birds give a one-two punch. Bees get nectar and pollen and pollinate the flowers; birds eat the fruit and poop the seed. The seed can lie dormant for up to 100 years then when the opportunity arises: a clearcut, a fire, gazillions of pincherry sprout. After Hurricane Juan and a clean up clear cut near us there were soon 50 acres of pin cherry ..a bee bonanza. Pin cherry is a short lived pioneeer species whose shade holds moisture and provides cover for more valuable tree species to get started. I once heard of a blueberry grower who wouldn’t put bees in his fields until the nearby pincherry blossom was down …he thought the bees would go to the pincherry in preference to blueberries and his rental money would be wasted. Pincherry helps wild pollinators live and complete their life cycle …weed them out and you could be eliminating free pollinators as well. Seems to me that pincherry is up there with raspberry and fireweed, other opportunistic species that colonize forest openings and offer beekeepers a honey chance. Foody factoid: cyanide in the seeds.
When the dandelions bloom, beekeepers breathe a little easier. There are usually lots of them, and when they bloom around mid-May, the weather is usually improving and the bees can make good use of them for pollen and nectar. For me, dandelions are a sign that my feeding interventions are no longer necessary …the bees can look after themselves. So when the dandelions bloom I remove division board feeders from the hives and insert some new foundation in their place. By this time in May there are lots of young bees capable of making wax and the dandelion nectar and pollen gives them the ingredients to make the wax. It’s full speed ahead when the dandelions bloom. “What can I do to help the bees?” “They are in trouble aren’t they?” people ask. Simple answer: steal all the spark plugs from your neighbours’ lawn mowers and don’t give them back until the windipuffs appear …that will help all bees, both wild and kept. It ain’t going to happen though, too many lawn obsessives out there, but not down our road where lawns won’t get moved until June. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a bee obsessive). Unconfirmed personal factoid: an interesting thing I’ve noted is that dandelion flowers close up when the temperature drops, and they open again when warmed by the sun or the warmth of the day. You’re supposed to be able to tell the temperature by how many cricket chirps per minute in the summer; in a similar way I think dandelions tell us the temperature. I think they re-open at about 10 -12 degrees C, which is just about the temperature that honeybees need to actively forage … maybe there’s a symbiosis there …after all, both our honeybees and dandelions are introduced species from Europe. So many good things could be said about dandelions: gorgeous in a sunny field, totally edible both above and below ground, (I once made coffee from dandelion root when on a survival course) and now a source of latex for tires …what’s not to love about dandelions?
Chokecherry is one of the early wild trees/bushes that provides blossoms for bees wild and domestic. The distinctive flower clusters are succeeded by “drupes” of berries in July through September. Bees work them for pollen and nectar. Chokecherry likes a sunny edge along a road or field or water course. Well pollinated the berries can be prolific and are easily “milked” off the stems. Jams, syrups, juice,wine. Scary factoid: the seeds contain hydrocyanic acid (cousin to cyanide – poison) and cooking is necessary to neutralize this acid and straining out the seed is a good idea, too. Now I’d always thought that saskatoon (serviceberry) would be the berry ingredient in pemmican. Wrong! According to my reading for this post, chokecherry was the berry component of pemmican. Chokecherries would certainly be quicker picking than saskatoons, but where one is sweet, the other will pucker you up. Need more input.
Serviceberry is, I believe, the first of the wild tree fruit to bloom in the spring, followed by chokecherry and pin cherry. It flowers before its leaves fully emerge and the white flowers stand out against some early leaves that are light brown rather than green. Anyway, early in the spring you can identify serviceberry at 100k as you drive by and notice the white flowers with the copper tinge of the first leaves . Wild bees and honeybees work the blossoms quite keenly for nectar and pollen. Serviceberry and red maple would be amongst their earliest nectar sources. Serviceberry (aka shadbush, Indian plum, saskatoon, Juneberry) is vary variable, from bush to tree size. It seems to like a sunny edge and moist ground, along roads and lake shores. The fruit are red to deep purple as they mature through June and July- and birds like them. Foody factoids: they make a sweeter pie than blueberries. Prolific in the West, saskatoons along with fat and dried meat were the ingredients for pemmican. Serviceberry is one of my signs of spring; it says dandelions won’t be far behind. I’m fortunate to have a permanent bee yard handy to lots of serviceberry trees, so the fruits of the bees’ May labour is just waiting to be snacked on when I work the yard in June.
Red maple is one of the earliest nectar plants for honeybees, usually coming available sometime in April. You’ve got to look. We normally look for bees close to the ground, but if it is sunny and not too windy the bees can work the red maples, mainly for nectar, but a grayish brown pollen is available too, and they need all the nectar and pollen they can haul in in the spring. Interesting factoid: on foraging trips, honeybees tend to specialize: they go for nectar or for pollen and if they go for nectar, it is nectar from a single floral source. Red maples bloom before they leaf out. Apparently bees will work sugar maples, too, but their blooms aren’t available until May when there are more other food sources for bees, so red maple is more important to them because of its early bloom.
Alders. They are straggly, ugly and invasive …but they do good work. First, for the bees: Alders are mostly wind pollinated, but they generously offer pollen for insects. The male and female flowers are present on the same bush. The female catkin is like a little brown cone and the male flowers are the traditional dangling catkins, closed in early spring , then opening as the weather warms to reveal brownish yellow pollen on every stamen. Alders do not offer insects a nectar reward, presumably because they are wind pollinated and don’t need insects. But bees do need alders. The large amounts of pollen/protein they provide help honeybees raise their replacements in the spring. Second, for us: alders fix nitrogen and help restore played out ground to productivity and stabilize areas that could erode. The first Google hits are all about getting rid of alders, but if there is no good reason to get rid of them, you’re better to leave them do their thing for us and the bees. Gloomy factoid: survivalists note that alder pollen is plentiful and nourishing …could be a food source at the apocalypse.