Flowers are of course the main source of honeybee forage throughout the world. Flowers can provide pollen and nectar which are the food honeybees need to remain healthy. Honeybees need a long season supply of flowers to supply the needs of a healthy growing hive. In most of North America the honey flow is a two season event with a strong flow in spring and a lesser flow in fall with very little in between. Much of this has to do with our choice of flowering plants. We tend to choose a spring flowering plant over summer flowers. There are flowers available that bloom in season all season long. When we buy plants in the spring we must learn to plant things that are not blooming yet so our bees will have the flowers they need in the season they need them.
Insect made Honeydew is another source of honeybee forage. Honeydew is a waste byproduct made by aphids that feed on the juices of leaves of various plants. Honeydew has a high sugar content and is a good source of natural sugar during the summer months. Linden trees and Tulip Poplar trees are known honeydew producers.
Maples and other trees “run” sap in the early spring. This sap runs from superficial wounds made by a woodpecker. You may have seen the lines of holes made by the Yellow Bellied Sapsucker on trees. This sap has a high sugar content, (think Maple Syrup) and comes at a time of year when bees are beginning to be active but before flowers are readily available.
Whole have been books written about plants that are important to honeybees and often these authors rate plants by their importance to honey production. This rating can be misleading. Honeybee foraging is by its nature as individual as each hive location. Some of the ratings are based on the overall abundance of the nectar producing plants. If your hives are not near a particular plant, it does not matter how good a nectar producer it is, bees cannot gather what they cannot reach. Likewise, a plant may have a low importance rating but be in abundance near your hives. That plant will be very important to those hives. Bees make the best of what is available to them where they are.
Linden trees vary widely in population over their native range. If you have Linden trees nearby, you will get a good flow from them most years. If you live in the native range but there are no trees within 4 or 5 miles of your hives you will see no impact. The same goes for Sourwood, Black Locust and Tupelo. Bees will work the flowers on an individual tree and a single tree will have a small impact but a grove will be much better for a noticeable difference in honey production. Sourwood honey is made where there are entire mountainsides of Sourwood Trees. The regional importance of these trees as a honey crop may be modest but, the individual hive may reap a great crop if those trees are nearby. Many annual and perennial flowers are subject to the same issues. A large stand of any bee friendly flower will have a grater impact than a few scattered plants.
Busy bees are happy bees. A hive that has a diverse diet and many choices of flowering plants all season long will be healthier and more productive than one that has two brief seasons of flowers. Summer blooming flowers may or may not pack the frames full of honey but if they supply the needs of the bees during the low season the surplus of spring and fall will be available for harvest.
In towns and cities, proper selection of trees and flowers in commercial and civic plantings can positively impact the flower supply. Many of those beneficial flowering plants may not rank high on the honey production scale since they are not widespread but a street lined with Golden Rain Trees will be both beautiful and productive. There is a roundabout in downtown Nashville TN planted to a diverse group of wildflowers that has bee friendly flowers available at least 8 months out of the year. They say “A steady drip soon fills the bucket” a steady supply of flowers soon fills the hive with honey!
Clean cultivation and mowing everything makes it harder for our bees to find the flowers they need. The aversion to “weeds” is pervasive and somewhat perverse. To say we want nature but want it to look neat and clean is not realistic.
Honeybees do best on a diverse diet. A hundred species will make for healthier bees than a dozen. Any diversity we can supply our bees will make them happier and healthier.